“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of my favorite science websites is at Science or Not, the author of which, Graham Coghill, claims that “this website will help you separate real science from nonsense that’s masquerading as science.” Most real scientific skeptics have that goal, but Coghill does a great job in formalizing science into a readable, logical format.
Coghill has been doing a couple of series of blog posts, both of which are some of my favorites for science. One is the “Hallmarks of Science,” which endeavors to describe what makes good science.
Then there is its evil twin, the “Red Flags of Science,” which points out the indicators of bad science, pseudoscience or plain nonsense.
So with all due respect to Graham Coghill, I’m going to abscond with his Red Flags of Science series, and show how the GMO opponents use bad science to make their case. (Please note, I deleted some Red Flags that didn’t apply to GMO refusers, like magical powers).
I get a lot of email about this blog. Most of it is nice, many asking questions or recommending future topics. I do enjoy the recommendations, because it sometimes leads to some interesting areas of research.
Occasionally, I get critical emails, some civil, and some not quite as civil. And I got one of those emails, with interesting and not very creative ad hominem attacks – really could some of you do better than this?