This morning, I was reading a posting by Orac, the nom de guerre (or nom de blog, according to him) of a rather snarky, humorous, and brilliant (yeah, I think he’s brilliant) surgeon hiding somewhere in the midwest. In his article, The Tactics and Tropes of the Antivaccine Movement, he amusingly and pointedly exposes the pathetic myths of the anti-vaccine movement. Seriously, it’s not that hard dismissing the unsupported claims of the vaccine denialists, but the postings from the evidence-based crowd are necessary to make sure those people who make decisions through the University of Google Medical School have some accurate information. At least that’s the theory.
So what is a trope? If you’re talking about a religious service, it’s a musical embellishment, which sounds about right. But in writing, a trope is a word or words that are used in a sense that is different from their literal meaning. Hyperbole, used frequently by the vaccine denialism gang, is an example.
Orac listed several tactics, then the tropes, of the anti-vaccine movement, but it’s clear that they are used by the Big 3 of pseudoscience, Climate Change Denialists, Evolution Denialists (creationist) and Vaccine Denialists. There are others, of course, like the HIV/AIDS denialists (claiming that HIV does not cause AIDS), and Physics Denialists (homeopathy). First their tactics (liberally paraphrasing and embellishing on what Orac wrote):
- Skewing the science. This involves cherry picking studies, quote-mining, and attacking science that doesn’t support their denialist point-of-view, while trumpeting any report or study that supports them. The Big 3 of Denialism even attempt to rename their pseudoscience into “science”, with creation science and the “theory” of Intelligent design by way of illustration. Case in point, Generation Rescue, Playmate of the Year Jenny McCarthy’s vaccine denialism website, contains a list of ingredients in vaccines and the side effects. No citations. No list of the concentration of ingredients. No description of the actual risk of said side effects. In other words, it looks like science. But it doesn’t even meet the standards of a high school science paper or Wikipedia.
- Shifting hypotheses. Using a football metaphor, Orac calls it, “moving the goalposts.” The denialist crowd changes either their requirements for evidence or just dismiss whatever evidence that doesn’t support their point-of-view. One of the best examples (of so many good ones) is the old macro vs. micro-evolution canard used by creationists. For scientists, macroevolution (change in a large population of organisms over geologic time periods) and microevolution (change at a species level over a relatively short period of time, usually one that is observable) are both driven by the same mechanisms, that is genetic drift and natural selection. Creationists will regularly state that they “believe” in microevolution but not macroevolution. Science answers questions, and it thrives on answering new ones. But artificial questions that are just invented to shift the emphasis is a waste of time.
- Censorship. This is an extreme characteristic of all anti-science movements. For example, the Age of Autism does not allow dissenting comments in any of their discussions about vaccines. Answers in Genesis, the evolution denialist website, only “answers” questions that are moderated. Real science loves these discussions. If some vaccine denier came to this website, I’d engage them in debate (except it’s hard to debate someone who doesn’t use real evidence).
- Attacking the opposition. Dr. Paul Offit, a respected pediatrician, is regularly attacked by the anti-vaccine gangsters (sorry, I fell into hyperbole, please pardon the mess), because of his writings on the subject of the safety of vaccines. His 2011 book, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, probably angered those gangsters (oops, once again) as much as anything. Orac himself apparently had an email campaign written about his evil ways passed along to his university (I guess his nom de blog isn’t that secret). I once spent a substantial amount of time editing Wikipedia anonymously, focusing on vaccines, evolution, and alternative medicine articles. I was very careful with my identity, but someone found my address in California and began spamming my email and regular mail. They contacted my employer, but since it was my company, I wasn’t too concerned.
And now the tropes (mostly from the vaccine denialist mob):
- “I’m not antivaccine; I’m pro-safe vaccines.” Of course, there’s no evidence that vaccines are unsafe, but this sounds good. A similar one is the evolution denialist “I believe in microevolution, but not in macroevolution.” Or the climate change version, “sure, the temperature is rising, I just don’t believe humans are involved.”
- Vaccines are toxic. Thoroughly debunked and debunked.
- A demand for absolute safety. As anyone who’s in medicine states, every medical procedure, technique, injection, device, pharmaceutical, or whatever else has some risk. When the benefits outweigh the risk, then the choice is clear. When the benefits outweigh an invented risk, then it’s extremely clear.
- A demand for absolute “proof” that vaccines are safe. I hate these arguments. Science doesn’t work in absolute proofs, it works to provide evidence that supports a hypothesis. Science is open-minded, so it demands the best possible evidence, but leaves the possibility that an alternative hypothesis may supplant the original one.
- “Vaccines didn’t save us.” Pure delusion.
- Vaccines are “unnatural.” This trope is used by the alternative medicine world every day, because, they state, without any evidence, “natural” is better than real science. In fact, there’s nothing more natural than inducing an immune response, since it happens billions of times. Debunked.
- Choosing between “vaccine injury” and disease. What injury? Last I checked, the real evidence doesn’t support vaccine injury. So, there is no choice, since the real disease is worst.
What is troublesome about these tropes is that they are simple to state. “Vaccines are toxic” is a three word statement that is scary, even if not supported by evidence. To discredit it, one needs to discuss each of the ingredients, providing real evidence, and then try to tie it all together. That’s way beyond three words. I once heard Paul Offit on NPR, and his answers were intelligent and correct, but they are so nuanced and complex, the listeners defaulted to the “vaccines are toxic” meme.
I believe that patients should be informed about their health and their healthcare choices. But searching the internet for this information has always troubled me. If you google “vaccines and autism”, you get over 7 million hits (with number 2 being the Jenny McCarthy Body Count, so that’s comforting). But what is the quality of these hits? Is Wikipedia a good choice? Well, I’ll answer that question because I know a couple of physicians and medical researchers watch over it carefully. In todays world of the interwebs, readers tend to accept every website as being “the truth”. I know people who actually count the number of websites that support a particular point of view!
Where are the critical thinking skills? I bet the various science deniers will state that they are thinking critically, but mostly what I see is trying to support a viewpoint by manipulating the information, instead of being openminded. It is difficult to engage in this discussion with such individuals.