Don’t fall for the Nirvana fallacy – COVID vaccines are safe and effective

glass blur government health

I bet you’ve read that the new COVID-19 vaccines are not 100% perfect, so employing the Nirvana fallacy, must be avoided. That’s just not how one should look at medical data – whether examining vaccine safety and effectiveness or the usefulness of chemotherapy in treating cancer.

No medical procedure is perfectly safe or perfectly effective. Physicians and scientists never make those kinds of claims. In evidence-based medicine, benefits are weighed against risks based upon peer-reviewed published data.

I always like to say that when a physician reduces a fracture of the arm or leg, there is a small, but statistically significant chance of dying from something like a clot forming that goes to the heart or lungs. However, if you don’t reduce the fracture, there is a might higher chance of dying or permanent disability. Yet, I doubt that anyone would refuse the procedure despite the inherent risk.

Unfortunately, the bad math of the anti-vaccine world means that any risk that is not absolute 0% is rounded up to 100%, and vaccine effectiveness that is not absolutely 100% is rounded down to 0%. Yet, I’m sure if they had a broken arm, they would have the fracture reduced immediately.

This article is going to take a look at the Nirvana fallacy and how it relates to the acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccines.

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Cherry-picking – fake science that shows vaccines don’t work and ivermectin does

cherry-picking

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve noticed an epidemic of cherry-picking by people trying to prove this or that about face masks, vaccines, treatments, and mortality. If you don’t spend a lot of time reading the scientific literature on these points, you’d think that there was some sort of scientific debate on everything to do with COVID-19.

Even though some people will try to show that science is all over the place about this pandemic, it really isn’t. We know that facemasks worked, and probably helped reduce the infection rate. And it helped crush the seasonal flu across the world.

We know that the COVID-19 vaccines are very safe and very effective.

We know that all kinds of treatments don’t work from hydroxychloroquine to ivermectin to quack remedies from internet grifters.

And we know that the CDC isn’t intentionally inventing mortality numbers because of…reasons!

So, why does it seem like there are scientific debates about all of these? It’s because we seem to be in a world of false equivalence where cherry-picking one “science” article, irrespective of its merits, can “prove” a contradictory point. But this is not how science is done.

Not to be repetitive, but real science requires one to review all of the published evidence, giving more weight to published studies in respected journals, written by respected scientists, using respected methodologies and analyses, with respected conclusions. It is absolutely not cherry-picking those studies, irrespective of their quality (and they usually have no quality), just to support one’s pre-ordained conclusions. That’s pseudoscience.

I hate cherry-picking unless it’s gathering that delicious fruit. I can get behind that kind of cherry-picking.

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Natural immunity – more vaccine denier pseudoscience with no merit

natural immunity

“Natural immunity” is the trope du jour of the anti-vaccine world – they want us to believe that contracting a dangerous pathogen is somehow better than preventing that disease with a vaccine. Their pseudoscientific beliefs rely upon logical fallacies, a complete misunderstanding of how the immune system works, and a healthy dose of bad math.

In other words, the same old same old from our anti-vaxxer “friends.”

The purpose of this article is to discuss why natural immunity is a bogus concept when it comes to vaccines. I need to make one warning upfront – immunology is complicated and cannot be described in 1000 words or less. So, I’m going to do a lot of linking to good articles that describe various things about the immune system.

But here we go – hang on for some science. Continue reading “Natural immunity – more vaccine denier pseudoscience with no merit”

Recognizing good and bad science in vaccine research

bad science

Figuring out the quality of sources, that would separate good from bad science, took me a long time. I was sleep-deprived, had postpartum anxiety, and was scared of something I had not previously thought that much about before having kids.

The woman who had been a mentor to me in my career, with whom I had entrusted my life and that of my child through my pregnancy and birth, whispered in my ear a few minutes after my son was born to not let the hospital give him the hepatitis B vaccine. This was the first and last communication we had about vaccination, but filtered through my trust for her it planted a seed of doubt and convinced me at the time there was a good reason to avoid it. Her suggestion that I followed could have cost my son his life, but it took me almost two years to figure out why.

I set out on a path of sleepless nights to figure out what those reasons might be, and the internet can certainly deliver on that front. The problem was, most of what I was reading was misinformation designed to exploit my fears. I wasn’t yet familiar with the idea of confirmation bias or that search engines had a lot of first page hits for poor sources because of the way the search algorithms work. 

It took me some time to figure out that Google is the confessional of our anxieties, the most commonly typed in fears get boosted, and higher quality links with more technical language tend to lag behind as we often don’t know what keywords will give us the answers we are looking for. If we think of the internet as a library, it would be like if register adjacent tabloids and flyers handed to you on the street by conspiracy theorists were filed in the most prominent shelf spaces amongst the reference books.

Quality information is available, but it can take some digging to get to it. As a result, I got a lot more scared before I learned how to better interpret the quality of what I was finding. I eventually learned to type whatever scared me alongside “+criticism” or “+debunked” if I wanted to find a different perspective on a topic. Doing that is how I stumbled upon Skeptical Raptor’s well-cited breakdowns of things I had been reading that had me all twisted up in knots. Learning to use Google Scholar for searches also helped to cut through the noise when I was looking for actual research.

I feel a lot of regret for the time I left my child vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases because of fear, and hopefully some tools I found along the way to help me evaluate sources might be helpful for other parents who find themselves facing the same stress. Continue reading “Recognizing good and bad science in vaccine research”

It’s difficult to be a real scientific skeptic – let’s make it easier

scientific skeptic

Since I started this website, nearly four years ago (that’s 50 internet years), I’ve noticed a serious problem – some skeptics, even scientific skeptics, are lazy, trying to take the easiest way to accept or refute a claim. It is difficult to be a real scientific skeptic (see Note 1). It’s not impossible, but it takes more than using some intentional or unintentional bias or fallacy.

This lack of real skepticism has manifested itself in some incredible meta memes: “vaccines are dangerous,” “gluten is dangerous,” and “GMOs are dangerous,” even in groups who are ostensibly “pro-science.” However, if I replied to them, “wow, you must be a creationist too,” generally, their indignant reply would make a sailor blush.

Scientific skepticism is hard, not because of the complex science (even though, that is part of the issue), it’s because searching for the evidence that supports or refutes some claim is often nuanced, and contradictory. And researching it isn’t easy.

Thus, as a self-proclaimed scientific skeptic, I thought I’d write an article to help anyone learn more about what interests them, how to discriminate between bad and good research, and where to find good information. Sit down with your favorite internet consuming device, grab your favorite snack and drink, and enjoy.

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Vaccine skeptics – let’s be clear, they are really science deniers

vaccine skeptics

I get so tired of this, the press describing vaccine deniers as “vaccine skeptics.” I wish the press would stop doing this, but no matter how much we say it, we continue to see it. I took the cantankerous Orac’s suggestion to Google “vaccine skeptic” and “Robert F Kennedy.” And, I got over 2 million hits. Two million!!!

Now, you might be asking yourself, “self, why is this feathery dinosaur getting all cranky about whether these people are called skeptics or deniers?” Because skepticism, even to the lay person, implies that the person has some legitimate beef with the science of a topic based on a thoughtful and unbiased review of said science. That is actually the furthest thing from the truth for these so-called vaccine skeptics.

Besides I’ve been cranky and snarky about misusing the term “skeptic” in science for years. And when this feathery dinosaur sees the press lending some legitimacy to the illegitimate beliefs of Robert F Kennedy Jr, it requires some cranky commentary (although the crankier Orac took some wind out of my sails). Continue reading “Vaccine skeptics – let’s be clear, they are really science deniers”

Science deniers use false equivalence to create fake debates

This article has been updated and can be found here

If you read a news article, Google a scientific topic, or watch TV, you’d think that some scientific principles were actually being debated by scientists. The unfiltered information about important scientific subjects allows the science deniers to use a false equivalence to make it appear that the often minority, and scientifically unsupported viewpoint is equivalent to the scientific consensus which is based on huge amounts of published evidence.

From listening to the screaming and yelling, you would think that scientists aren’t sure about evolution, vaccines, global warming, and the age of the earth (or even the age of the universe). There are even those who think there’s a debate that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. It’s because some news sources think there’s a debate, so bring one person to represent one side, and one for the other, and the person screams the loudest often wins.

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Opinion – vaccine deniers annoy the shit out of me

This is part of my series of opinion pieces. As I’ve written, it is not meant to be supported by evidence or data – unless I link to evidence. Then it is.  

Vaccine deniers, or anyone who is antivaccine for any reason, are a difficult group. They have ideas that are just unsupported by any factual evidence. They have an opinion that they’ll hold on to as if it were a commandment from Thor.

Again, as I’ve written before,

[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Even if you believe that your opinion is right, does not make it so. It’s still wrong. And just because you can troll the internet finding others who share that misconception, again does not move it into the realm of fact, it merely means you’ve found like-minded people who are also wrong. Your wrong opinion is still wrong, and it has no validity. None.[/infobox]

The opinion that vaccines are neither safe nor effective is simply wrong. The vaccine deniers want to claim there is a scientific debate. No there’s not. The vaccine deniers want to claim that their opinion is more valid than the mountains of evidence. It isn’t.

Let’s make this clear – the antivaccination cult is wrong. We’re going with that assumption, because it is valid, and it is supported by mountains of evidence. And just because they whine loudly, they’re still wrong.

So how do they get there? Here are some of my “opinions” of what led them to being so wrong.

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Richard Dawkins GMO position is made clear to Prince Charles

During the late 1990s, Richard Dawkins, noted secularist, author and evolutionary biologist, wrote an open letter to Prince Charles, noted promoter of pseudoscience and heir apparent to the British throne, about the Prince’s hostility to science. Even though Richard Dawkins GMO letter was written more than a decade ago, the salient points still ring true today:

…Sir, I think you may have an exaggerated idea of the natural-ness of ‘traditional’ or ‘organic’ agriculture. Agriculture has always been unnatural. Our species began to depart from our natural hunter-gatherer lifestyle as recently as 10,000 years ago – too short to measure on the evolutionary timescale.

Wheat, be it ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for Homo sapiens. Nor is milk, except for children. Almost every morsel of our food is genetically modified – admittedly by artificial selection not artificial mutation, but the end result is the same. A wheat grain is a genetically modified grass seed, just as a pekinese is a genetically modified wolf. Playing God? We’ve been playing God for centuries!

Richard Dawkins’ GMO ideas reflect real science, based on everything we know about genetics, agriculture, and biochemistry. Even though Dawkins letter was written a decade before the anti-GMO forces decided to make it a thing, it is still salient today.

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Boosting the immune system – sorting science from myth

boosting the immune system

This article has been updated and republished to clear up some points, and add another section. The comments for this article are closed, please comment at the new article.

One of the most ridiculous pseudoscientific claims that I keep hearing from the junk medicine crowd is that this supplement or that food is critical to boosting the immune system – it’s so prevalent that I believe I read it several times a day.

These type of claims ignore one basic physiological fact: the immune system is a complex interconnected network of organs, cells, and molecules that prevents invasion of the body by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pathogens every day. And no matter how much individuals try to trivialize how complicated the immune system is by claiming that downing a few tablets of echinacea will boost the immune system to prevent colds (it doesn’t), it doesn’t make it science.

And it isn’t that simple.

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