The term “vaccine skeptics” is not only used by anti-vaxxers to describe themselves but also it is employed by some of the popular press to describe them. From a scientific perspective, it would be inaccurate to label them as a skeptic – more accurately, anti-vaxxers are vaccine deniers.
In this case, the word skeptic is being misused, much like the creationists calling evolution “just a theory.” Well, in the case of evolution, “just a theory” doesn’t mean what they think it means since a scientific theory is near the pinnacle of scientific principles.
Let’s take a look at what real vaccine skeptics would be since it doesn’t mean what the anti-vaxxers think it means.
What is scientific skepticism?
To the average person on the street, a “skeptic” is a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted conclusions, whether it’s in science or something else. In other words, this type of skeptic just doubts everything, whether or not that doubt is backed by any type of evidence.
It’s not very meaningful in terms of scientific discussion, and it carries little weight in a debate about the scientific merits of an idea or a scientific hypothesis.
In ordinary usage, this type of skepticism has one of three meanings:
- an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object;
- the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain; or
- the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics.
These individuals would be better described as “cynics.” But there is a better descriptive for vaccine skeptics, and that would be vaccine deniers, but we’ll get to that.
All about scientific skepticism
As opposed to vaccine skeptics, real 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.
Moreover, a true skeptic does not accept all evidence as being equal in quality, but, in fact, they will give more weight to evidence which is derived from the scientific method and less weight to poorly obtained and poorly scrutinized evidence.
It is not how the so-called vaccine skeptics use the term. They ignore all scientific evidence to support a pre-ordained belief, unless, of course, that “evidence” supports that belief.
As I mentioned above, better quality evidence means more. Large clinical and epidemiological studies along with meta-reviews published in high impact factor, peer-reviewed biomedical journals far outweighs anecdotes and bad articles published in low-ranked and predatory journals.
This is quite the opposite of what the so-called vaccine skeptics will do:
- They give more weight to anecdotes, that is, stories that are told over and over but have no evidence of correlation or causation.
- They cherry-pick publications, usually of very poor quality, to support their beliefs. This is confirmation bias.
In science, claims that are to be advanced must be “scrutinized, tested, tortured to see if it really holds up.” For a scientific skeptic, reproducibility, the hallmark of a good meta-review, and empirical research are valued above all other evidence.
The false authority problem with vaccine skeptics
Of course, a true scientific skeptic cannot be an expert on all fields, it’s just impossible, especially as the sciences have become more specialized and more complex as we answer more questions about the universe. However, a true skeptic can accept an expert’s conclusion, as long as that expert has long subjected themselves to scrutiny and have credentials that indicate that they themselves have gone through the torture of gaining an education and authority in a particular field.
One of the favorite plays of anti-vaxxers is to promote a “Harvard researcher,” a perfect example of false authority. Despite all of the evidence supporting the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, anti-vaxxers will push this researcher as more important than the thousands of other researchers who have actually published research.
Ironically, whenever I see something on the internet that claims something in science or medicine based on “Harvard research,” I generally laugh, because I know it probably lacks merit.
Of course, scientific skepticism sometimes does have to utilize the argument from authority, but only if that authority is an expert in the field questioned and only if their authority has been heavily critiqued, usually by their peers.
It is not arrogance to accept that an authority on the topic should be given much greater weight than an internet troll who has never lifted a finger in a scientific laboratory, it is just that the authority in the field has gone through the tough critical work to be an authority, and their research has been accepted by a broad consensus of other authorities.
Vaccine skeptics are just vaccine deniers
Vaccine skeptics are actually the opposite of true scientific skeptics. They should be called deniers, 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, such as vaccines cause autism, we would design powerful, large scale studies to test that hypothesis. 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 a 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 100,000 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?
Fundamentally, scientific skepticism is the tougher, more harsh, form of scientific thought. It demands evidence and it challenges evidence about the nature of the universe, whether it’s how the universe began 13.8 billion years ago, or how a vaccine induces the immune system to protect against disease.
True scientific skepticism demands not only that it be shown the evidence, but how it is derived. Real science is self-correcting, and so is skepticism.
Vaccine skeptics ignore the evidence (unless it supports their claims), they never self-correct those claims in light of new evidence, and they use personal attacks when they are challenged. These are all hallmarks of pseudoscience.
The vaccine deniers love to say that we scientists have a closed mind about the “real evidence” about vaccines. However, real scientific skepticism requires an open mind, always challenging evidence, always accepting high-value evidence, and never ignoring the possibility, even a tiny one, that the idea is wrong.
A denier, like a vaccine and evolution denier, have closed minds. It doesn’t matter how much evidence they are handed, they stick with their a priori beliefs, usually with logical fallacies rather than providing contradicting evidence.
They reject high-value evidence for evidence that rarely meets the standards of peer-review. And finally, though a denier might claim that they are open to the fact that they might be wrong, they reject scientific consensus and the value of high-quality evidence, usually with the typical list of logical fallacies.
Carl Sagan‘s famous quote, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” is an important feature of real scientific skepticism. The safety and efficacy of vaccines are supported by mountains of extraordinary evidence, from historical records to randomized clinical trials to epidemiological studies across broad swaths of patients.
It is important to note that not only do the scientific skeptics have to be convinced that an extraordinary claim has the requisite extraordinary evidence, but also the deniers have the same responsibility.
If a scientific skeptic is going to claim that vaccines are more harmful than the disease it prevents, they have to put up extraordinary evidence. And these anti-vaxxers have not even come close.
The most ironic observation about true scientific skepticism vs denialism is that a true skeptic accepts the burden of proof. On the other hand, a true denier never ignores the burden of proof.
Steven Novella, one of the great skeptical minds of this generation (there are many, I’m just choosing one), describes skepticism succinctly:
A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own.
A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.
A “vaccine skeptic” couldn’t care less about the methods. They just care about their conclusion that vaccines are bad.
So, let’s stop calling these anti-vaxxers “vaccine skeptics.” Let’s call them by the proper name – vaccine deniers.
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