Vaccine open-mindedness – confessions of a science nerd

Sometimes a reasonably intelligent anti-vaccine troll will show up to an internet discussion. Although they’re filled with various logical fallacies, like cherry picking, they will often say “you should be open-minded about vaccines causing autism.” The thing is my vaccine open-mindedness is the precise definition of what should be open-minded.

People conflate “open-mindedness” with “you should accept everything stated, because of insert logical fallacy here.”

Let’s use my favorite example, sasquatch, the mythical ape-like creature that inhabits everywhere, as far as I know.

A close-minded person would say, “sasquatch exists, damn the evidence.”

A pseudo-open-minded person would say, “sasquatch exists, because the Federal government is suppressing the evidence. Furthermore, just because we don’t have evidence today, we know we’ll find it tomorrow.”

A real open-minded person would say, “sasquatch does not exist, because of the utter lack of evidence. However, if someone brings irrefutable evidence, I will reconsider my position.”

In other words, a really open-minded person doesn’t have to be open-minded to the hypothesis proposed, just open to the evidence. I am pretty certain that sasquatch does not exist – that’s not being close-minded. Because what I would actually say is that “I reviewed the highest quality evidence, and I found nothing that would support the hypothesis that sasquatch exists.”

As someone once said, “keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” In fact, scientific progression is utterly dependent upon open-mindedness.

Vaccine open-mindedness

 

Let’s get to vaccines, leaving behind the mythical sasquatch. But what I’m going to say here can be applied to any pseudoscience that might pollute your life. But since the anti-vaccine crowd can be rather illogical with their definition of how to examine evidence, I’ll use them as the example.

I’ve repeated a statement several hundred times in comments, writing, and speaking to dumbass healthcare workers who refuse to get a flu vaccine – “the scientific consensus about the relative safety and effectiveness of vaccines is supported by overwhelming evidence.”

Not to brag, but that statement is a perfect example of being open-minded. The hypothesis, that vaccines are relatively safe and effective, is supported by a large body of real scientists who have published literally mountains of research supporting it.

But there is an implied statement within mine – alternatively, if there is a corresponding level of high quality data that refute the consensus, I’m open-minded to review that data. And if it really is high quality and quantity, I reserve the right to change my evaluation of the hypothesis.

When we’re discussing open-mindedness, it’s not that you should accept the “possibility” that something exists – it technically means you should be willing to review newer, better, and more powerful evidence.

I once was open-minded (20 years ago to be accurate) that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. There was an article that implied that in a very highly ranked journal. But eventually, we found out the author, Andrew Wakefield, was a cunning fraud, the article was retracted by the Lancet, and the ensuing 20 years of research have affirmatively shown that there is no possible link between vaccines and autism.

An open-minded person should rely upon the truism, “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” And it only applies to the individual making an assertion, especially one that contradicts the scientific consensus.

If you’re going to assert that sasquatch exists, then bring extraordinary evidence. No grainy films. No fake footprints. Bring a body. Some bones. Anything.

The same with the anti-vaccine crowd. If you’re going to refute the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, you need extraordinary evidence, which those of us who are open-minded would review.

No, we’re not open-minded to dumpster diving in the vaccine adverse event reporting system, VAERS. VAERS is a voluntary database. Reports are not evaluated for causation. And the numbers there do not accurately reflect a relationship between the vaccine and the patient. This does not qualify as “extraordinary evidence.” It barely qualifies as evidence of any sort.

No, we’re not open-minded to weak population level epidemiological studies published in predatory journals. Those do not qualify as “extraordinary evidence.”

If there are 200 articles published in high quality journals, extraordinary evidence to contradict an idea would probably include a similar number published in real journals.

One more thing. Conflating rigidness with real open-minded thinking is wrong. I’m not rigid about my vaccine open-mindedness – it’s just that all (and I mean pretty close to 99.9%) of the evidence supports the fact that vaccines are very safe and very effective. It may appear that I’m being dogmatic, but those claims are supported by evidence, that’s all that matters.

 
 

Vaccine close-mindedness

 

This side of the equation describes what the anti-vaccine crowd does. It’s based on a few key tactics that are visible for at least 100 km away:

  • Cherry picking – basically, a close-minded person has an a priori conclusion, already set in their mind. Ask an anti-vaccine person what makes them think that vaccines are not safe and/or effective, they’ll pick one article (if they’re actually somewhat knowledgeable) that they think is the “ah ha, I gotcha” article. But that article is generally poorly designed, published in a bad journal, and still is overwhelmed by the 200 other articles that say the opposite. Quality and quantity of evidence matters. And a true open-minded person examines ALL of the high quality evidence, and sees where it leads them. It’s hard work.
  • Lack of plausibility – I think this is overlooked by both sides of a scientific discussion, and it leads to bad conclusions. If an anti-vaccine pusher is going to make a claim that Gardasil causes some disease, you must tell me how. If you’re going to claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism, an open-minded person would ask, “what is the physiological process that leads to that?” So even if you were to show me some correlation between autism and vaccines published in a reasonable journal, you don’t have a pass to ignore basic science. You need to show me HOW that happens.David Gorski was explaining how “science-based medicine,” a truly “open-minded” methodology for clinical medicine, is an improvement over other types of medical knowledge. He stated that, “SBM is designed to take a “big picture”, global look at any clinical claim and that we need to consider the scientific plausibility of the claim.”
  • Argument from Ignorance – This is the belief that just because there isn’t evidence supporting a belief, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be. It’s sort of the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” trope. Yes, there are cases where absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence, especially where there are big numbers involved. We cannot see every planet in the universe, so we can’t possibly find evidence of intelligent life, because the numbers of planets is so large, it becomes impossible.But if you go looking, and can’t find it, then the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. In numerous large studies of vaccines, some containing millions of injections, we find no evidence whatsoever of a link to autism. It is absence of evidence, meaning we get to dismiss it. And I, with a full dose of vaccine open-mindedness, would be fascinated by a well-done study, published in a high quality journal, that showed a 1%, 5% or 10% increase in risk for autism in a post-vaccinated person. Who wouldn’t?
  • Personal anecdotes – Generally, anecdotes have no value in an open-minded evaluation of vaccines or any other scientific hypothesis. Why? Because the claimant is asking me (or any other scientist) to accept their “evidence” without corroborating evidence. Moreover, there is no independent access to the information that forms the basis of that anecdote.Anecdotes form the foundation of a lot of anti-vaccine nonsense. They’re more or less worthless, because humans have a tendency to see links where none exist – that’s the basis of superstition. I don’t have access to medical records to confirm the diagnosis, to see the temporal relationship to the cause and event, and to examine any number of confounding factors. But I’m supposed to “trust” that the anecdote is factual? That’s not open-minded. That’s just silly.
  • Pseudoskepticism – Being skeptical of science, doesn’t mean you’re being open-minded. The only thing that matters in real skepticism, and I’m repeating myself, is the quality and quantity of valid evidence derived from the scientific method. Claiming an anecdote uncritically supports the belief that vaccines are not safe or are not effective is being close-minded.

The TL;DR version

 

If you are going to accuse a pro-vaccine scientists, like me and many others, of somehow being close-minded, you better get your facts right.

Vaccine-openmindedness does not mean I have to accept every crackpot idea that is presented by anyone on the internet. Nope. That’s not how it works.

I form a hypothesis, “are vaccines safe and effective,” and I look to two things:

  1. What is the quality and quantity of evidence that support or refute the hypothesis?
  2. What is the biological plausibility of supporting or refuting the hypothesis?

There are variations of this theme. I accept arguments from authority, only if the authority makes their statements based on evidence. Tetyana Obukhanych, is a well trained immunologist, but none of her claims are based on published evidence. So her authority is limited if it exists at all.

Also, ad hominem attacks and strawman arguments are worthless, if there’s no evidence behind the claims. Stating that Paul Offit is bought out by Big Pharma makes for a short argument to make the anti-vaccine forces feel good, but Offit uses nothing but scientific evidence in his claims. It actually is nothing more than a close-minded statement by the anti-science crowd.

But it’s not just vaccines. Open-mindedness is necessary to determine that the quantity and quality of evidence supports anthropogenic climate change, the safety and productivity of GMO crops, the fact of evolution, and the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

If you’re going to cherry-pick one article that supports your pre-conceived conclusions? Go for it, but that’s close-minded thinking. If you’re going to claim a massive conspiracy with no evidence but applying some nonsense ethical standard that doesn’t exist, that’s also close-minded thinking. If you’re going to make a claim that violates every basic scientific principle, you’re close-minded.

Let me make this easy – only evidence matters. And open-minded person evaluates all evidence, weighting it logically, and seeing where it leads them. Yeah, it’s hard.

I may come across as arrogant and tough about scientific claims I favor, but that’s because I did the hard work, over many decades, to learn real science. And I only accept real evidence as an argument. That’s not close-minded – that’s open-minded to scientific evidence.

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor

Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!