I get so tired of this, the press describing vaccine deniers as “vaccine skeptics.” I wish the press would stop doing this, but no matter how much we say it, we continue to see it. I took the cantankerous Orac’s suggestion to Google “vaccine skeptic” and “Robert F Kennedy.” And, I got over 2 million hits. Two million!!!
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.
Besides I’ve been cranky and snarky about misusing the term “skeptic” in science for years. And when this feathery dinosaur sees the press lending some legitimacy to the illegitimate beliefs of Robert F Kennedy Jr, it requires some cranky commentary (although the crankier Orac took some wind out of my sails).
Let me be clear. Skepticism in science is a very important part of science. In fact, scientific skepticism is “the noble pursuit and accumulation of evidence, based on the scientific method, which is used to question and doubt claims and assertions. A scientific skeptic will hold the accumulation of evidence as fundamentally critical to the examination of claims.”
Furthermore, a true skeptic does not blindly accept all evidence as being equal in value – they give more weight to higher quality data. In the world of real scientific skepticism, evidence published as a meta-review in a peer-reviewed, high impact factor journal far outweighs almost any other type of research. Reproducibility, the hallmark of a good meta-review, and empirical research are valued above all other evidence – repeated evidence rules all others.
Finally, all claims that are to be advanced must be “scrutinized, tested, tortured to see if it really holds up.” Claims that stand up to the bright lights of criticism are the best.
These vaccine skeptics are quite the opposite of a scientific skeptic. Instead, they rely upon anecdotes, beliefs, and the anti-scientific method – state a conclusion and cherry pick data that supports that conclusion. They turn to logical fallacies and insults if you shine bright lights onto their “evidence.” These individuals are almost the typical purveyor of pseudoscience – vaccine skepticism is really a belief system that tries to make itself appear to be real science, but fails miserably to adhere to the basic constructs of science.
In fact, “vaccine skeptics” are pseudoskeptics – those who declare themselves merely “skeptical” of a concept, but in reality would not be convinced by any evidence. I am convinced that we could create the most perfect, wonderful clinical trial with any vaccine, which concluded it was very safe and very effective, and they would say, but “it should have included 150 more patients, so it’s worthless.” Actually, we have mountains of evidence, and they aren’t convinced.
Vaccine skeptics are deniers
Vaccine skepticism is actually the opposite of true scientific skepticism and should be called denialism, which is a culture of denying an established fact, scientific theory, scientific law, or well-established tenet of science along with any evidence supporting them. More often than not, this denialism occurs in spite of overwhelming evidence, and is almost always associated with motives of convenience to the denier.
There are even really good indicators of science denialism:
- They have no clue what constitutes the scientific method. They believe in faith, anecdotes, and special pleading.
- They pride themselves on being scientifically ignorant, and relying upon all sorts of logical fallacies.
- They think that the scientific consensus is actually a conspiracy that is against their beliefs.
So, how do vaccine skeptics fit into these indicators? Let’s take a look:
- The scientific method is not magic. It is, at its essence, the asking of a question about our natural universe, a hypothesis, followed by a set of experiments to affirm or refute that hypothesis. If we create a hypothesis, like vaccines cause autism, we would design powerful, large scale studies to test that. Of course, we have already done that, and we have found that vaccines are not linked to autism. The vaccine skeptics do the opposite – using confirmation bias, they seek out evidence to support their pre-ordained conclusions. That is not science. That is denialism.
- Vaccine deniers love to call science a “religion.” They are actually proud that they prefer unscientific methods, like anecdotes and YouTube videos, which support their ignorance. And enter a discussion with vaccine deniers will, within a couple of minutes, devolve into all sorts of logical fallacies – since these lack evidence, they are forced to, as Orac says, rely upon “the copious use of logical fallacies in arguing.”
- Vaccine deniers are always looking for conspiracies. The Big Pharma Shill Gambit, the CDC whistleblower manufactroversy, and many others are examples of these appeals to conspiracy. Trying to use a logical feint, they yell out “conspiracy” to make people think that there is some grand and malevolent plot to keep vaccines on the market to hurt our children.
There are other clues to the denialism moniker being placed on these “vaccine skeptics.” For example, they try to use false balance to make it appear that there is some controversy in science about vaccines. They find a false authority, like Tetyana Obukhanych, then tout her credentials, and try to convince us she’s equivalent to the hundreds of thousands of scientists who stand in the scientific consensus about vaccines. They create debates between one vaccine denier vs. one vaccine supporter, when a real debate would have 10,000 supporters on one side against 1 on the anti-vaccine side. Of course, that might make for a confusing, albeit dramatic, point.
As I mentioned above, these pseudoskeptics are called deniers because they deny the mountains of evidence about the overall safety and effectiveness of every vaccine on the market. And this denial of science can lead to diseases that can harm everyone, but especially our children.
Sam Harris, an American philosopher and neuroscientist, once wrote one of my all time favorite quotes about science and denialism:
Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. What if someone says, “Well, that’s not how I choose to think about water.”? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn’t share those values, the conversation is over. If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?
And one more thing
This feathery dinosaur is also offended by other types of pseudoskeptics – climate change skeptics, evolution skeptics, HIV skeptics and GMO skeptics. None of the people in these groups are real skeptics. If there are mountains of evidence supporting vaccines, there are Himalaya levels of evidence supporting climate change, evolution, HIV/AIDS and the safety of GMOs.
And, the same science denier indicators apply to these other types of pseudoskeptics as they do to the vaccine deniers. Yes, you read it right – vaccine deniers = climate change deniers = evolution deniers = HIV deniers = GMO deniers. And yeah, your scientific credibility fails miserably if you accept the evidence of one, but deny the equivalent and powerful evidence of another.
Oh, and one more one more thing. I wrote previously about the Associated Press Stylebook, a manual for modern writing, which says “To describe those who don’t accept climate science or dispute that the world is warming from man-made forces, use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science. Avoid use of skeptics or deniers.” They want us to use “doubters” to describe deniers, which seems like a weasel word.
Again, if you want to actively reject the findings of vast majorities of real scientists, whatever your motivation, it’s hard to characterize that as “doubt.” That’s simply denialism.
I know that the press has failed us miserably over the past few months. But claiming that Donald Trump or Robert F Kennedy Jr. are vaccine skeptics is not just annoying, it sends a message to the public that there’s some real intelligent debate about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. There simply isn’t. There’s one side with said mountains of evidence, and there’s the other side that utilizes every known method of pseudoscience and denialism to invent some false claims about vaccines.
A real scientific skeptic, like myself, has reviewed a boatload (I need more time to get through the mountain) of evidence with most vaccines. And guess what my critical mind says – vaccines are relatively safe and very effective. In the calculations of medical science, which weighs benefits against the risks, the vaccine equation falls way over on the side of great benefits to mankind.
If you are one of those people who say “climate change is real, but my precious snowflake is not getting any of those poisonous vaccines,” you are simply a science denier. Because whatever science you may believe exists about climate change (which to me, is much more difficult to comprehend than vaccines, but I’m a biomedical scientist), there’s almost the same quality and amount of evidence supporting vaccines. You can’t pick and choose what science turns you on.
Vaccines save lives.
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