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Home » Pseudoscience and vaccine denialism (updated)

Pseudoscience and vaccine denialism (updated)

Last updated on August 24th, 2019 at 11:26 am

We frequently use the term “pseudoscience” to describe the ideology of certain groups:  antivaccinationists, evolution deniers (creationists), global warming deniers, HIV/AIDS denialism, and almost anything in the areas of parapsychology, alternative medicine, and sasquatch. The science denialists (broadly defined as any group who rejects the scientific consensus on any subject without valid scientific support) always seem to be insulted by the word “pseudoscience”, even though the name is given to them both as a pejorative, but also because its based on their non-scientific, but scientific-sounding method of providing information.

In fact, there are several hallmarks that indicate to most educated individuals as to what is or is not pseudoscience. Real science is a systematic and rational method to organize and analyze “knowledge” into testable explanations and predictions. Sometimes, it appears that the anti-science crowd believes that science is just a word, not a philosophy which is organized as the scientific method. It isn’t some magical system that only smart people in secret ivory towers practice. The scientific method is simply a set of logical steps:

  1. Formulate a question: Based on observations of the natural world. Maybe you notice that sky is blue, and you ask “why is the sky blue?” Or “how do I design a vaccine to encourage the immune system to prevent a virus from causing a disease?” Of course, the questions can become much more complex as we make more detailed observations of the our world.
  2. Hypothesis: An hypothesis is a conjecture, based on the knowledge obtained while formulating the question, that may explain the observed behavior of a part of our universe. The hypothesis may be broad or very narrow. One could make a hypothesis that life can evolve on many planets across the universe. Or one could make a hypothesis that a drug can cure a disease in a small population of individuals. A proper hypothesis must include a null hypothesis, that is, the scientist must be willing to test that the null hypothesis is also false (a sort of double negative). This null hypothesis is that the new vaccine does nothing and that any disease prevention are due to chance effects. Researchers must also show that the null hypothesis is false. A scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable, meaning that one can identify a possible outcome of an experiment that conflicts with predictions deduced from the hypothesis; otherwise, it cannot be meaningfully tested. This all sounds complicated, but digested down to its simplest form, it means that a scientist is always willing to attempt to prove that the hypothesis is wrong
  3. Prediction: Once a hypothesis is developed, then the a prediction (or more than one prediction) is made based on the hypothesis. For example, if a vaccine is supposed to prevent a disease, then the prediction is made that it prevents some some amount of the disease above what would be assumed just by random chance. For example, without the vaccine it might be predicted that only 10% of individuals might be immune to the disease, but with the vaccine, it would be predicted that 85% would be immune. In all fields of science, the hypothesis leads to predictions which are different than what would be found simply by coincidence or randomness. Also, the hypothesis must be powerful enough to create more accurate predictions than alternative hypotheses.
  4. Test: This is the conducting of experiments or investigations to determine whether the real world behaves as predicted by the hypotheses. These experiments are observations which will agree with or conflict with the predictions; if they agree, then the confidence in the hypothesis will increase. On the other hand, if there is conflict, the confidence will, of course, decrease. Experiments should be designed to minimize possible errors, especially through the use of appropriate scientific controls. Medical and drug experiments utilize double-blind clinical trials to limit confirmation bias, a tendency towards confirmation of the hypothesis under study. 
  5. Analysis: This involves determining what the results of the experiment show and deciding on the next actions to take. The predictions of the hypothesis are compared to those of the null hypothesis, to determine which is better able to explain the data. In cases where an experiment is repeated many times, a statistical analysis such as a chi-squared test may be required. If the evidence has falsified the hypothesis, a new hypothesis is required; if the experiment supports the hypothesis but the evidence is not strong enough for high confidence, other predictions from the hypothesis must be tested. Once a hypothesis is strongly supported by evidence, a new question can be asked to provide further insight on the same topic. Evidence from other scientists and one’s own experience can be incorporated at any stage in the process. Many iterations may be required to gather sufficient evidence to answer a question with confidence, or to build up many answers to highly specific questions in order to answer a single broader question.

For example, in the 150 years since Charles Darwin published his “Origin of Species” that proposed the theory we now call evolution, thousands, if not millions, of experiments, observations and publications have supported and, frankly, improved upon the original. Science isn’t hard to understand, but it is time-consuming. It is built to remove errors and intentional falsehoods. Important science is always repeated and falsified, because science is self-critical. One would be a hero if you could break apart the dogma with a new direction. A Nobel Prize would await someone who could take all the accumulated data and show how Darwinism is wrong. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The problem with pseudoscience is that it attempts to masquerade itself as real science, thereby confusing the reader.  Creationism has started to use “creation science” to establish itself as a “science” with scientific theories.  But just by claiming it’s a science without actually employing the logic of science means it’s probably pseudoscience.

Denying the science of evolution and attempting to force the pseudoscience of creationism is annoying and damaging to biological research, but it does not immediately harm anyone.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the antivaccinationists, who employ pseudoscience to try to tell us that vaccines are unsafe or even not useful.  The problem there is that it does cause immediate harm, by keeping young children from getting proper vaccinations.

Using vaccine denialism as our example, let’s review how it fits into the checklist of pseudoscience:

  1. Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claimsThey make vague scientific claims to find the explanation for autism, or any other major side effect of vaccination, that requires extensive assumptions to make their conclusions. They lack boundary definitions for what effects vaccine side effects, preferring to just make every claim that they can. Essentially, it gets difficult to engage in any type of civil discussion, because nearly every day, a new invented claim is made. They totally lack any experimental evidence of any claim of their own, because they do not are incapable or unwilling to perform or fund research. They often criticize the quality of experimental evidence that vaccines are safe and efficacious with ad hominem arguments or data mining. More often than not, they ignore parsimony, creating long “connect-the-dots” logic that attempt to convince people that some sort of danger exists. 
  2. Over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation. In other words, the anti-vaccine lunacy fail to accept the possibility that experiments or observations may show their theory to be false. Most scientists make no such absolutist claims. In fact, many researchers will state, that there might be a possibility that vaccinations cause autism, but they cannot find a mechanism for it to happen and they haven’t seen any results that support such a hypothesis. Scientists are completely open minded to any result (that’s good science), whereas the anti-vaccine league of undistinguished playboy playmates are completely closeminded to logic.  Moreover, many of the vaccines cause XYZ (put anything in here) conspiracists are over-reliant on confirmation bias, that is, seeking the results that confirm the hypothesis (and ignoring the results that don’t), rather than using results to support or nullify a hypothesis. 
  3. Over-reliance on testimonial, anecdotal evidence or personal experience. This is the opposite of science, which publishes articles in peer-reviewed journals that are open to the bright, blinding light of criticism.  Whenever someone states that they heard that some vaccine caused problems with someone’s kids, then you have to ask, really?  Prove it.  Can I see the medical files?  What was the diagnosis? Who performed the diagnosis?  Were there other pre-existing conditions?  Have we seen this elsewhere?  Again, real science uses statistical analysis over a large population
  4. Lack of openness to testing by other experts. Evasion of peer reviewed publications and use of popular press is precisely the lack of openness that prevents discussion. Jenny McCarthy, Meryl Dorey, and company complain that science is hiding the truth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists, despite the lack of a scientific foundation in the vaccine causes autism hypothesis, spent years trying to confirm Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent findings (and how much of that could have been spent actually uncovering the causes of autism). They found nothing that supports the link. And Wakefield has been accused of fraud and had his medical license revoked.
  5. Absence of progress. Basically science evolves. As new results appear, science develops new theories and hypotheses that may modify or even replace the old one. As mentioned above, even the theory of evolution has evolved (pun intended). When I was working on my graduate degree in biochemistry, we did not know what caused AIDS. Every biochemistry lab in the world was trying to figure it out. There were a whole slew of theories on what caused it (some of them were laughable), but now we know that HIV infection causes AIDS. That’s how science works. It’s been over a decade since the debunked “vaccines cause autism” started, yet not one single bit of evidence has been provided to support anything about vaccines causing autism or any other neurological issue. Progress in the anti-vaccination lunacy is essentially trying to find a theory that sticks.  Mercury.  Aluminum.  Too many injections. Destroying the immune system. Chemicals. What next, the glass vial in which the vaccines are stored?
  6. Personalization of issues. Those vaccine denialists resort to name calling (we are all bought out by Big Pharma), appeal to authority or whatever other appeal that’s handy, and, of course, conspiracies. This article in the Age of Autism (should be named the Age of Anti-vaccination). It’s one giant article that personalizes the issue, and is filled with strawman arguments (and probably hits the logical fallacy bingo). I debunked most of the points. Orac does a better job of it in Yes, Virginia, there is an antivaccine movement (efforts to deny it notwithstanding).
  7. Use of misleading language. Denialists of all sorts use scientific jargon to make superficial claims that the theory is scientifically sound. Like a couple of denialist comments here, there is a constant use of fancy terminology that makes no sense when read. The Age of Autism article mentioned in #6 above is a perfect example of it. Even claiming that it’s not “anti-vaccine” but are “people raising this important question would be consumer safety advocates, seeking informed consent, more research, product liability, and policy reform.” Sounds nice, except for the fact that they’re risking lives of kids for unsupported claims. These days, the vaccine denialists are trying to take over the word “skeptics” by calling themselves vaccine skeptics. Skepticism “is the noble art of constantly questioning and doubting claims and assertions, and holding the accumulation of evidence as of fundamental importance. It forms part of the scientific method, which requires relentless testing and reviewing of claimed facts and theories.” Back to that scientific method. But vaccine skeptics are really denialists or “pseudoskeptics”, “who declare themselves merely “skeptical” of a concept, but in reality would not be convinced by any evidence that might be presented.”

I can do the same thing for such failed therapies as orthomolecular medicinehomeopathy, and radionics. It’s not that science has the answer to every question. It obviously does not. But when a questioned is asked of science, it either agrees, disagrees, or says that more information is needed. It does not place a value on any particular answer, just that evidence supports it. It tries to find the answer. The great thing about science is that it gives you the tools to not be afraid of the unknown.

The problem is that pseudoscience pushers are loud and frightening, so the public gives equal weight to the comments of pseudoscience and real science, thinking that they have equal validity. The public needs to reduce the weight given to medical woo, but without further investigation, it sometimes becomes more difficult.

Taking the longer-term point of view, as science education becomes worse in the United States, sometimes, the pseudoscientific point of view wins easily. Vaccine ingredients just sound scary. Those childhood diseases weren’t that bad. Big Pharma just makes money off of the vaccines. The immune system is too complicated to understand. Frankly, only a tiny minority of people are not vaccinating their children, but that’s too many.

Ignore the vaccine denialists. They are wrong. They deny real science. They have no scientific background. They are totally lacking in scientific skill and knowledge. They pick and choose what they want through the use of pseudoscience.  

So, let me yell loud. REAL SCIENCE SAYS VACCINES ARE SAFE AND PREVENT DISEASE. And they save lives. 

Michael Simpson

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