Google University equals research for anti-vaccine pseudoscience

Google University

I’m sure everyone has run into the type – a science denier who thinks their two hours at Google University makes them as knowledgeable as a real physician or scientist. This arrogance manifests itself in ridiculous discussions with anti-vaccine religious nutjobs who claim to have “done the research,” and who believe their pseudoscientific research is more valuable than real scientific research.

This Google University education from vaccine deniers, really all science deniers, can be frustrating. I frequent a couple of large Facebook groups that try to help on-the-fence anti-vaxxers understand what constitutes evidence and what doesn’t with respect to vaccines. Recently, one of the anti-vaccine true believers kept saying she knew more than a nurse with a public health master’s degree. The arrogant anti-vaxxer kept claiming that she “did her research.”

Hang on. The old dinosaur needs to slam his head on the desk.

Because of this absurd overvaluing of their Google University research, I want to review a handful of points that every science denier seems to use that makes us laugh. All but one applies to any type of science denial, but we’re sticking with vaccines. Because we can. Continue reading “Google University equals research for anti-vaccine pseudoscience”

Scientific consensus – collective opinion on vaccines and other science

scientific consensus

In the hierarchy of scientific principles, the scientific consensus – that is, the collective opinion and judgment of scientific experts in a particular field – is an important method to separate real scientific ideas and conclusions from pseudoscience, cargo cult science, and other beliefs.

I often discuss scientific theories which “are large bodies of work that are a culmination or a composite of the products of many contributors over time and are substantiated by vast bodies of converging evidence. They unify and synchronize the scientific community’s view and approach to a particular scientific field.”

A scientific theory is not a wild and arbitrary guess, but it is built upon a foundation of scientific knowledge that itself is based on evidence accumulated from data that resulted from scientific experimentation. A scientific theory is considered to be the highest scientific principle, something that is missed by many science deniers. In addition, a scientific consensus is formed by a similar method – the accumulation of evidence.

I have written frequently about the scientific consensus because it is one of the most powerful pieces of evidence in a discussion about critical scientific issues of our day – evolution, climate change, vaccines, GMOs, and many areas of biomedical knowledge.

This tome has one goal – to clarify our understanding of the scientific consensus, and how we arrive at it. Through this information, maybe we all can see the power of it in determining what is real science and what are policy and cultural debates.

Continue reading “Scientific consensus – collective opinion on vaccines and other science”

Anti-vaccine terrorists – maybe it is the time to call them that

anti-vaccine terrorists

In a recent article in Without a Crystal Ball on Patheos, Katie Joy, an anti-pseudoscience writer after my own heart, laid out a powerful case to label vaccine deniers as anti-vaccine terrorists. I think I’m on board. I know, it’s tough but deserving.

Katie wrote:

Fringe conspiracy-theorist terrorists, called ‘anti-vaxxers’ are multiplying so fast that some counties, cities, and states have vaccination rates below community or ‘herd’ immunity levels across the U.S. With more parents buying into the  conspiracy that vaccines contain toxins, cause autism, and are unsafe, children, the elderly, and immunocompromised are suffering. These people need to be called out for what they are; anti-vaxxers are terrorists that kill and harm our children.

Even if you oppose anti-vaxxers, you might think it’s too extreme to use the “terrorist” label in this case. I do not. Though there is no single agreed-upon definition of terrorism, most agree that it consists of using fear as a tool to achieve political or social change while disregarding harm done to others in the process. I think anti-vaxxers meet every part of that definition.

After giving it much thought, I think I’m going to have to change my description of these nutjobs from anti-vaccine religious extremists to anti-vaccine terrorists. Maybe it’s harsh. But it’s deserving.

I want to make a case for this “anti-vaccine terrorists” label. Maybe you’ll agree, or maybe you’ll think I’m over-the-top, even if you’re pro-science. But these vaccine deniers are putting children at risk of harm, it’s becoming difficult for me to excuse their lies and misinformation.  Continue reading “Anti-vaccine terrorists – maybe it is the time to call them that”

Rotavirus vaccine may protect children from developing type 1 diabetes

rotavirus vaccine

We all know that vaccines save lives by preventing diseases. But a new study from Australia provides some solid evidence that the rotavirus vaccine not only protects children against the deadly rotavirus infection but also against type 1 diabetes.

This post will take a look at the vaccine, diabetes, and what the study shows. Preventing type 1 diabetes is a lofty goal for researchers for a long time. Let’s see if the data is convincing. Continue reading “Rotavirus vaccine may protect children from developing type 1 diabetes”

Settled science of climate change and vaccines – critiquing denialism again

settled science

Many of us on the evidence side of science discussions will often throw out the phrase that XYZ is settled science. Of course, this causes the science deniers, especially the vaccine and climate change deniers, to get all indignant while throwing out there science ignorance wrapped in their usual ad hominem personal attacks. I use it frequently, about 25% of the time to troll the science deniers while about 75% of the time to make a point.

So this article is going to review what we mean by “settled science,” and it doesn’t mean what the pseudoscience loving world thinks it means. In fact, pseudoscience fans think the only “settled science” is their fake evidence and fake conclusions. But that’s not science and it’s not “settled science.”

Now, you might ask about why I chose climate change and vaccines as the two settled science examples. There are good reasons – conservatives who accept vaccines often reject climate change, even though the evidence supporting both are overwhelming. And there are those on the left who get angry about climate change denial, yet accept every pseudoscientific argument, conspiracy theory, and lie about vaccines. It makes my brand new irony meter blow up. Continue reading “Settled science of climate change and vaccines – critiquing denialism again”

The reptilian conspiracy and vaccines – a feathered dinosaur confession

reptilian

As you are probably aware, the reptilian conspiracy theory states that one of the signs of a reptilian is an obsession with science. Well, this reptilian tried to hide in plain sight pretending to be an ancient feathered dinosaur (see Note 1), but now I’ve been outed. And it’s time for me to confess to my using reptilian skills to hide the truth about vaccines.

I know. I tried to use evidence that I cherry-picked out of systematic reviews and clinical trials, which I claimed were the pinnacle of the hierarchy of biomedical research but were really just produced by the reptilian scientists. This was done to obey the orders the Reptilian Overlords at Big Pharma.  Continue reading “The reptilian conspiracy and vaccines – a feathered dinosaur confession”

Children’s Health Defense anti-vaccine attack on Paul Offit – this again

Children's Health Defense

Maybe you don’t know much about Children’s Health Defense, but it’s a newer anti-vaccine group run by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has become one of the high priests of the anti-vaccine religion. RFK Jr., scion of the Kennedy family who dominated US politics for decades, has gone off the deep end of conspiracies from the assassinations of his father, Robert F. Kennedy,  and uncle, John F. Kennedy, to the discredited belief that vaccines cause autism.

Children’s Health Defense, as a proxy for RFK Jr.’s lunatic beliefs about vaccines, decided to utilize ad hominem attacks on Dr. Paul Offit as part of their offensive against vaccines. Why? Because the anti-vaccine crackpots lack any evidence of any of their claims, so the best they can do is attack people with childish name-calling and logical fallacies. If this wasn’t about saving children’s lives with safe and effective vaccines, I’d just laugh at these people. They are ridiculous members of a lunatic fringe.

Although I’m not going to waste your time tearing apart each absurd attack they make on Dr. Offit, I’ll tackle a few. For educational purposes only! Continue reading “Children’s Health Defense anti-vaccine attack on Paul Offit – this again”

Tetyana Obukhanych – another anti-vaccine appeal to false authority

There are so many annoying issues about the antivaccination cult, that most of us can’t even keep up with it. If only they would provide evidence published in high quality, peer-reviewed journals (yes, a high standard, but if we’re talking about public health, a high standard is required), the fake debate would move into a real scientific discussion. One of their favorite feints against real evidence is to push people, like Tetyana Obukhanych, who appear to have great credentials, but once you dig below the surface, not much is there.

One of the most irritating problems I have with the anti-vaccination movement is their over-reliance on false authorities, where they trumpet the publications or commentary from someone who appears to have all of the credentials to be a part of the discussion on vaccines, but really doesn’t. Here’s the thing – it simply does not matter who the authority is or isn’t, all that matters is the evidence.

For example, Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, two researchers in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia, have, for all intents and purposes, sterling credentials in medicine and science. However, they publish nonsense research (usually filled with the weakest of epidemiology trying to show a population-level correlation between vaccines and adverse events) in low ranked scientific journals.

Now the anti-vaccine world has a new hero – Tetyana Obukhanych. Continue reading “Tetyana Obukhanych – another anti-vaccine appeal to false authority”

Samoa vaccine story – tragedy abused by anti-vaccine websites

Samoa vaccine story

On Friday, July 6, a tragedy occurred in Samoa, a small country located in the Pacific Islands. Two children brought in for routine MMR vaccination died within minutes of receiving the vaccine (one report said hours and the first expert quoted below was responding to that, but the rest consistently said minutes – another question for investigation). The government reacted to the Samoa vaccine story immediately, opening an inquest into what may have killed the children. 

These are the known facts about the Samoa vaccine story. First, my deepest condolences to the families – it is beyond tragic. This tragedy should be investigated, and when the facts are known, they should be shared, steps should be taken to prevent recurrence, and consequences imposed where appropriate (the fact that a second vaccine was administered after the first death is especially troubling).

Unsurprisingly, this has been picked up by anti-vaccine pages and activists as evidence that vaccines kill and that there is a conspiracy of silence to hide that. Both of those storylines are wrong. I want to take a look the facts behind this Samoa vaccine story. Continue reading “Samoa vaccine story – tragedy abused by anti-vaccine websites”

“Bad Advice” by Paul Offit – a book review by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

Bad Advice

A new book, “Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Informationby Dr. Paul Offit, is different from his previous writings in two ways – much of it is autobiographical, with a lot of personal anecdotes, and it is about science communication rather than the actual science.

“Bad Advice” opens with a story of a 1997 TV interview Dr. Offit has, and how he bungled – by his account – a question about which vaccines children get, how many, and when. The story sets the tone for the book – it’s funny, it’s candid about what Dr. Offit did, in his view, wrong, and it offers sound advice for other science communicators.

To a large extent, this book was written for those engaged in science communication, and it is full of tips that can help every current or would-be science communicator.

What gives the book its charms are the anecdotes and the humor sprinkled throughout it, and its accessible and conversational tone, but I don’t think I can mirror that here without spoiling the effect – I think these are best enjoyed in context. So this review describes the content but does not capture what makes “Bad Advice” so much fun.

For full disclosure, I highly admire Dr. Offit, have sought his advice and help on many issues in my writing on and advocacy related to vaccines, and consider him a personal friend. I have also read a draft of the book and provided comments. 

Why Science Communication?

The first three chapters of “Bad Advice” provide important background by explaining why science communication is needed, and some of the obstacles to it. 

The first two chapters of the book set out what science is and what scientists do, and why their training and background make it difficult for them to be effective science communicators. Among the things covered – again, with a lot of humor, humility, and personal anecdotes – are that much of the scientific work is done alone, and much of what it requires makes people less, rather than more, suited to work with people. 

Dr. Offit discusses the fact that the scientific method trains scientists away from using absolute statements, but qualified statements can backfire when communicating about science; the challenge of reducing complex, nuanced reality into sound bites that work in a digital age; and more.

The next chapter analyzes why we need science communication, why people – however smart – may fall for misinformation. It looks at several natural, human features that make us easily wrong on scientific issues. “Bad Advice” also examines our difficulty identifying and assessing risks, the pull of celebrities as authority figures, even though they may not have the background to provide good information, and may, in fact, promote bad information (for example, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.  – revisited later in the book – constantly provides bad information about vaccines  ). The chapter also talks about other limits on the ability of humans to think rationally and the ways we acquire knowledge.

After thus setting the stage for why it’s important to engage in science communication and some of the challenges, Dr. Offit is ready for the next stage.

Good advice vs bad advice

Chapters 4 through 7 offer direct advice on communications through personal anecdotes of things that worked and things that didn’t in Dr. Offit’s over 20 years of doing it.

In chapter 4, Dr. Offit offers “some painful, hard-earned, and occasionally humorous lessons gleaned from personal experience” on communicating with the public. These range from the deeply practical (“be comfortable”) to the content based (“be sympathetic,” in the context of an eleven-year-old diagnosed with AIDS at the time when HIV was a death sentence, and “Don’t panic.

The facts are your safety net.”). But they’re invariably written as amusing anecdotes leading to a useful punchline. In one of the stories, Dr. Offit describes how he arrived at the famous “10,000 vaccines” quote that anti-vaccine activists like to misuse. The punchline? “You are going to say things that, although scientifically accurate, you will regret. It’s unavoidable.”

Chapter five addresses whether it’s appropriate for scientists to debate science deniers, using several examples. Dr. Offit’s recommendation is to avoid it, but he does provide three successful examples of such debates. His conclusion is that he, personally, is too angry and passionate on vaccine issues to successfully participate – because he annually sees children die from preventable diseases, “invariably, .. because parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children. And the reason they had made that choice was that they had read or heard bad information..”

Bad Advice ends with a recommendation that “debating the undebatable is worthwhile,” if, and only if, scientists can see the discussion as a teachable moment, and not focus on the people they are debating or the others in the room.

I’m not sure I agree, at least in terms of a televised debate. I think Dr. David Gorski said it well when he wrote:

…debating cranks doesn’t sway anyone, sharing the stage with a real scientist does unduly elevate the crank in the eyes of the public. Besides, whatever the seeming outcome of the debate, you can count on the crank to declare victory and his believers to agree. In any event, science isn’t decided by the metrics used to judge who “wins” a public debate, which rely more on rhetoric and cleverness rather than science to decide the outcome. Finally, such debates are not without risks. Although Julian Whitaker, for example, was terrible at it, other cranks are adept at the Gish Gallop, and an unprepared skeptic or scientist can be made to appear clueless in front of a crowd that is almost always packed with supporters of the crank, not the skeptic.

I think I agree with Dr. Offit’s initial position that agreeing to a debate is a bad idea.

Chapter six looks at the role of comedians in combating misinformation about science, focusing on vaccines – covering the Penn and Teller episode, Jimmy Kimmel, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. And I’m really going to let you read that by yourselves. It’s fun.

Chapter seven looks at the ways the cinema helps or harms science communication. It opens by comparing two films about outbreaks – “Contagion,” that got the science right, and “Outbreak,” that did not. To give a flavor, when talking about “Outbreak,” Dr. Offit describes how a monkey carrying the harmful virus was caught, and the movie scientists had to “determine which antibodies are neutralizing the mutant virus, synthesize those antibodies, and make several liters of life-saving antisera. Assuming everything goes well, Hoffman’s task should take about a year. Cuba Gooding Jr. does it in a little less than a minute. (Now I understand why people are angry that we still don’t have an AIDS vaccine.).”

Nonetheless, Dr. Offit sees an important role for movies in science communications, and urge scientists to work with filmmakers to get it right.

Science communication in action – confronting the anti-vaccine movement:

The last part of the book uses the anti-vaccine movement as a story of the pitfalls and successes of science communication.

Chapter 8 of “Bad Advice” looks at how charismatic figures can promote anti-science misinformation. Although it covers several examples, the heart of the chapter is the case of Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who promoted misinformation about MMR. Dr. Offit tells the dramatic story of Wakefield’s rise, the scientific literature that showed him wrong, and the discovery of his misdeeds, that led to his fall. He describes Wakefield’s situation today – thoroughly discredited, on par with other conspiracy theorists – through his participation in the infamous Conspirasea Cruise.  The end of the chapter examines different explanations for why Wakefield sticks to his original claims, years after they’ve been thoroughly disproven. I’ll let you find out yourselves. It’s not exactly flattering to Wakefield, though. 

Chapter 9 looks at the role of politicians in promoting anti-science misinformation, focusing on Dan Burton’s hearings that tried to make a case that vaccines cause autism (YouTube snippets of the hearings, out of context, are still used by anti-vaccine activists. Dr. Offit will give you a more comprehensive view). Dr. Offit also tells of his own experience in the hearing, and what he sees as errors committed because of his naiveté and inexperience. It’s half sad and half comical to read through both his preparation for the hearing, and the actual experience of Mr. Burton, who came into the hearing with a set conclusion and a set role he wanted Dr. Offit to play, trying to delegitimize him. 

Chapter 10 warns science communicators to expect a campaign of personal delegitimization and attacks, drawing on Dr. Offit’s own extensive experiences with anti-vaccine efforts to attack him. It goes from hateful emails, through lawsuits, to death threats. It’s painful but incredibly important for people who go into these areas to be prepared for the ugly reaction from misguided but passionate people on the other side, in all its extreme forms. 

Chapter 11 goes more deeply into Dr. Offit’s own reasons for entering the fray. It is very autobiographical (some of the events in it were described in some of Dr. Offit’s other books, but many will be new to readers), telling his career story – again, with lots of humor, more than a few lumps. This is to explain what motivates him to speak up, and to some degree, to counter the claims accusing him of having a conflict of interests because of his involvement in the creation of the rotavirus vaccine. It’s a powerful chapter.

Chapter 12 ends on an optimistic note, pointing out things that have improved in the war for science – the rise of science bloggers, the better attitude of the media. And in the epilogue, Dr. Offit ends with the March of Science, as an embodiment of the willingness of science supporters to fight back.

Takeaway

In this very autobiographical, often humorous, extremely candid and full of good advice book, Dr. Offit does a service to science communicators by telling them what worked, what didn’t, and some thoughts on what comes next. You may not always agree with his advice, but you are very likely to agree with large parts of it, think about much of it, and enjoy the way it’s delivered. It’s a very fast read, and worth reading and probably rereading. And rereading.





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