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The vaccine debate is not a scientific debate

The continued use of thoroughly debunked tropes by anti-vaccine activists, in an attempt to create a fake debate about vaccines, is not supported by science. Anti-vaxxers lack all scientific credibility, yet they act like they are experts, and many of us, like myself, have to spend hours upon hours debunking their claims over and over and over.

Unfortunately, those anti-vaccine extremists tend to have an effect on those who are on the fence about vaccines. They want to push a belief that there is a debate about vaccines, because anti-vaccine radicals, like Steve Kirsch or Robert F Kennedy Jr, want you to believe that they have science on their side when science isn’t even within a good 500 km of their claims. And then those fence sitters, who may be reading this article now, decide to not vaccinate their children.

Scientists do debate about claims and conclusions, but they use science to do so. Two scientists who are at odds about a claim should use, and they mostly do, published evidence to “debate” the point. But over time a scientific consensus arises, based on evidence, not rhetoric, not false claims, and certainly not lies. The scientific consensus, which is the collective opinion of scientists based on published evidence, states that vaccines are demonstrably safe and demonstrably effective.

This article is written for those who may be on the fence about vaccines and thinks there’s some sort of balanced discussion or debate pushed by the anti-vaccine crowd. It’s time to dispel the false-balance discussion pushed by pseudoscience for the simple reason that they lack logic and scientific evidence to support their claim.

The anti-vaccine pretend debaters, like Kirsch and RFK Jr, fail on the science and the logic for many reasons. I am going to enumerate them below.

shallow focus photography of microscope
Photo by Chokniti Khongchum on

Anti-vaccine activists are lazy, so there is no debate

Vaccine deniers think that spending a few hours, or maybe a few days, doing “research” on Google, reading other vaccine denialists on an internet page, or trolling around an antivaccine Facebook page is sufficient to understand immunology, virology, bacteriology, vaccines, and epidemiology. They now think they are experts in highly complex fields of biomedical science.

Then from that weak attempt at “research”, then they make claims that vaccines cause this or that. Type 1 diabetes, autism, and even death are among the claims made by the anti-vaccine radicals to discredit the safety of vaccines.

There is no evidence supporting their claims, but they try to make believe that they are experts in vaccines.

In the book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell states that the key to expertise and success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. That’s about four years of 8-hour days, with no breaks for the bathroom, phone calls, texting your friends, or meals. it is a focused study of a single topic.

Science is absolutely hard work. It takes those 10,000 hours, and many more, to become a vaccine researcher or scientist. Scientists and physician-scientists spend thousands of hours in laboratories and in classrooms to learn about vaccines. They attend conferences where their work is criticized and sometimes ridiculed. They spend thousands upon thousands of hours of writing or reading other scientists’ works.

Vaccine science (sometimes called vaccinology) takes dedication — it does not result from a few part-time hours of surfing the web, reading every outlandish statement without any critical thinking. Being an expert in any scientific discipline takes all of your heart and time, and there are no easy ways to do it.

These anti-vaccine activists think they can understand complex concepts in biochemistry and immunology in a few hours. I wrote an article about the immune system, and it took me hundreds of hours of research over a few months to put it together in a clear, scientifically supported way. And I have 10,000 hours in two fields of biomedical sciences which gave me a head start.

How can an antivaccinationist make some claim that “vaccines damage the immune system”, when there isn’t a stitch of evidence that would support that claim? 

One, of the many, problems with how vaccine denialists do their research is that they accept data from the weakest sources because they are too lazy, too bereft of critical thinking skills to take the time to actually understand “good” science and to critique “bad” science. Generally, they accept anything they read or hear that supports their biased point of view while rejecting the mountain of evidence that provides evidence contrary to that point of view.

They do not want to spend the time to become world-class researchers because they lack the ambition, they lack the intellect, they lack the time, or they lack the motivation to do so. It doesn’t matter why they failed to do so, but too many others have invested the effort to become top-notch scientists and scientist-physicians, and their efforts should be respected and trusted. Hard work and intellectual strength should be cherished by all, not belittled by individuals who haven’t got the strength of will to do the same.

So, how could there be a scientific debate about a vaccine if one side of this discussion lacks any scientific knowledge and are too lazy to gain that knowledge?

Anti-vaccine zealots are illogical, so there is no debate

Instead of real science, anti-vaccine zealots rely upon various logical fallacies because they have no real evidence to support their position. For example, they default to the Big Pharma ad hominem claiming that these vaccines are just thrown into the market for money, without understanding that the several hundred researchers, who develop those vaccines, probably have accumulated 10,000 years of scientific research, have published tens of thousands of articles in peer-reviewed high impact journals, and have dedicated their lives to understanding the basics of immunology, virology, biochemistry and many other subspecialties of biomedical sciences.

These vaccine scientists have given their working lives to alleviate human suffering. And these vaccines represent that hard work, not a few hours of surfing the internet for conspiracy theories.

Again, the anti-vaccine radicals lack any logic supporting their debunked claims, so how can there be a vaccine debate?

Anti-vaccine fanatics do not deserve respect, so there is no debate

Vaccine denialists whine about not getting respect from the so-called pro-vaccine people. (As an aside, I do not consider myself “pro-vaccine”, I just consider myself pro-science and pro-children, and vaccines are supported by overwhelming scientific evidence to save children’s lives.) They claim that they are presenting science.

Why should I respect a group of people who cannot provide one single peer-reviewed paper published in a real journal that shows a significant issue with vaccines? They tend to mine news or research for anything that slightly supports their beliefs while ignoring everything else that does not. They ignore all new research that’s supported by other researchers, that’s repeated by a wide variety of research groups and then added into meta-reviews by respected groups such as the Cochrane Reviews. 

They have an over-reliance on personal anecdotes that have no basis in reality and can’t be proven. They make claims like “My child had vaccines and had XYZ happen.” How do we know? And certainly, how do we know that there’s a causal relationship? The oft-quoted snark, “the plural of anecdotes is not data” is apropos of the belief system of the anti-vaccine world.

It’s impossible to respect a group that brings nothing to the discussion. It’s amusing that the antivaccinationists continuously use MrAndy Wakefield‘s paper that alleged a connection between MMR and autism, which has been retracted by the Lancet. Oh, by the way, vaccines don’t cause autism — and there are over 160 published, peer-reviewed articles that support that.

But the most important reason why I don’t respect anti-vaxxers is that children’s lives are at risk. Vaccine refusals can harm children, and that’s why they should be ignored and disrespected. 

The anti-vaxxers cannot be respected, so how can there be a vaccine debate?

Vaccine deniers are arrogant, so there is no debate

There is nothing as arrogant as the anti-vaccine belief that their opinion is somehow more important than the vast weight of 99.99% of physicians, healthcare workers, researchers, scientists, public health officers, and just about anyone with a vested interest in the good health of the community.

Essentially, vaccine deniers exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average.

These individuals are incapable of recognizing their own mistakes and misinterpretations of science. In other words, these anti-vaccine pseudoscientists are incompetent individuals who not only perform a task poorly or incompetently but also lack the competence to realize their own incompetence at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. Yeah, it’s a head-spinner!

As I’ve said previously, the vaccine deniers are so delusional that they believe that their one-hour research on the internet somehow exceeds that of individuals who have invested years of hard work studying the various fields of the science surrounding vaccines, endured criticism, discovered new ideas, and supported them with numerous years of research. The arrogance of the vaccine deniers is frightening and profound.

The anti-vaxxers arrogantly believe that their Dunning-Kruger bias represent scientific facts, so how can there be a vaccine debate?

Anti-vaxxers are selfish, so there is no debate

Clearly, the antivaccinationists care only about their cause. Because if they didn’t, they would actually read what the real experts say, and then vaccinate their children today. They have a belief that these childhood diseases are not that serious, but as we have said over and over again, kids die of these diseases

These children don’t die because they are weaker or somehow different than the kids who are not vaccinated, they die because these vaccine-preventable diseases are dangerous. I personally cannot understand why these parents choose to risk their kids’ lives, but the cause seems to matter more than anything. How can we trust people who make that choice? 

And to answer the strawman fallacy that is often made by the anti-vaccine radicals is that “vaccines are dangerous”, once again, the evidence does not support them. None.

As I have stated, the fact that vaccines are safe and effective is settled science. If one of you anti-vaxxers wants to “unsettle” the science, then bring published evidence that shows that vaccines are either unsafe or ineffective. Don’t bring hyperbole, anecdotes, fake debates, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and/or outright lies — bring real science published in respected journals by individuals with a respected scientific background.

Anti-vaxxers don’t care about the lives of children who will be put at risk of deadly infectious diseases, so how can there be a vaccine debate?

Anti-vaccine extremists are manipulative, so there is no debate

Just read any news article about vaccines, whether positive or negative, it doesn’t matter. The comments section will be blasted by anti-vaxxers with their anecdotes, false claims, mined research, quote mining, conspiracy theories, ad hominems, and junk science.

The 90% of people who vaccinate their children either don’t care, or don’t comment, since they just vaccinate because they already have decided it is the right thing to do, and there is no debate. They don’t care about trying to refute the anti-vaccine claims, they know that science has got this one right.

So you have a tiny minority of individuals who make it make it appear that there is a real debate when there isn’t one. This is a time-honored method of global warming and evolution denialists, who create a debate when there is nothing but scientific support for those scientific theories.

Scientists, being thoughtful and nuanced in their discussions, often try not to be emotional or provocative in their points. They rely upon well-researched science in discussing vaccines. They trot out complex graphs that don’t have two sentences that are easy to digest by those whose science education was done at the University of Google.

So, the anti-vaxxers pull out a very badly done study on a vaccine causing XYZ, then they claim that “this proves that vaccines cause XYZ” when it shows nothing at all. Without any critical analysis, the manipulative anti-vaxxers will post links to the article as if it contradicts the vast body of evidence supporting vaccine safety and effectiveness.

In a NEJM article, authors GA Poland and RM Jacobson clearly describe the ongoing scientific problems of the antivaccination crowd:  

…the reality that none of the antivaccinationists’ claims of widespread injury from vaccines have withstood the tests of time and science. We believe that antivaccinationists have done significant harm to the public health. Ultimately, society must recognize that science is not a democracy in which the side with the most votes or the loudest voices gets to decide what is right.

All we get from the anti-vaccine gang is yelling and screaming, without any serious scientific information.

The anti-vaxxers try to manipulate people with logical fallacies and disinformation, so how can there be a vaccine debate?

Vaccines save lives

If you’re examining the “debate” between pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine, it’s not a matter of putting the evidence on one side or another. The quality of evidence for the safety and effectiveness of vaccines is solid gold, solid platinum. It is published in the most prestigious medical and science journals in the world. They are reviewed and critiqued over and over again.

The scientists and physicians stand in front of their peers and accept careful discussion and dialogue. The scientists continually revise their hypothesis and repeat it over and over again. They do not sit in front of their laptops trying to find the one article to support their beliefs, but they actually talk to patients, gather data from thousands of data points, review it, analyze it, and publish it. This is very hard work. 

The evidence to support the beliefs of the anti-vaccine crowd is almost nothing. They rely upon what they observe in the narrow world around them. They hear about a story on the internet and accept it as a fact. They take a poorly written article that has little data supporting it, and use it as their “evidence”. They don’t have any science whatsoever, yet make claims as if they are. And this is the science that they would bring to a vaccine debate — which is nothing.

Think of it this way. If you have heart disease, there are a number of options on how to treat it. The treatments can range from medications that reduce blood pressure and cholesterol to interventional cardiology or bypass surgery.

To determine which option is the appropriate one to manage your cardiovascular disease, first, you will need a bunch of diagnostic tests, followed by the learned opinion of a medical professional. Usually, it’s a cardiologist who has had 4 years of college, usually in a science program. That is then followed by 4 years of medical school, which includes a combination of both intense classwork and vigorous clinical training. Then, that is followed by 3-4 years of residency, where the physician receives progressively more exhaustive training in cardiology. This is followed by another 2-3 years of focused, intensive education and experience in one sub-field of cardiology. After over a decade of education, experience, and training, probably several times Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, that doctor is ready to treat, manage and repair your heart.

Would you trust your heart to someone who studied surgery on the internet for a few hours? Then why would you trust your child to someone who studied vaccines for a few hours on the internet? WHY? Why would you risk your child’s health based on claims made by someone filled with Dunning-Kruger bias?

And why on earth would you think that there is a vaccine debate when one side uses the actual science of vaccines and the other side does not?


Michael Simpson

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