How to crush antivax arguments

By Phil Plait | February 23, 2009 10:59 am

David Gorski is a surgical oncologist, and also a well-known though bepseudonymed blogger for Science Blogs. His anti-antivaccination stance is legendary, for good reason: he is incredibly well-spoken and his posts railing against the pro-measles (haha) crowd routinely eviscerates them.

But none of his posts has ever done so in such a remarkably thorough fashion as in this lengthy post in which he destroys the movement from top to bottom. What we have there, ladies and gentlemen, is the be-all and end-all of posts about the antivaxxers, showing their lack of evidence, their ad hominem attacks, their lies, their fraud, and everything else that makes them one of the greatest health threats in the United States, if not the world.

From the vacuous pseudoscientific nonsense of antivax spokeswoman Jenny McCarthy, to the out-and-out evillness of Andrew Wakefield, the father of the modern movement whose conflicts of interest when it comes to vaccines are simply breathtaking, Dr. Gorski’s post is nothing short of what should be The Link, the one you send to all parents who question whether they should vaccinate their children or not. Everything you need is there, with the history, quotations, false claims, and everything else about the antivax movement, including links to more information. I’ve put it in my sidebar blogroll, and if you think children should stay healthy and not get measles, rubella, pertussis, the flu, encephalitis, and even possibly die, then please help promote Dr. Gorski’s post. You may help save thousands of lives.

Comments (47)

  1. Thank you Dr. Plait! I agree with your assessment of The Link! Sadly, you can possibly get outright deluded people to read it, but will they actually engage their brains? The psychology of some of these people is downright frightening sometimes.

  2. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Funny, I was pretty sure Yule was passed!

    There is too much to pick from, but fortunately Gorski framed the presentation as an effective “then – now” progress report. … oh, all right, one pick then:

    When Jay Gordon says “No real scientist would encourage us to stop studying this possibility [that vaccines can cause autism]”, he is speaking against evidence I believe; IIRC quite a few scientists have spoken up lately that “enough is enough”, that the case is closed and it is a waste of peoples health to continue studies instead of promoting vaccines with all available resources.

  3. HP

    “a well-known though bepseudonymed blogger for Science Blogs”

    Well, he’s not bepseudonymed any more.

    Does Orac know?

  4. Lee

    Phil,

    This isn’t *directly* related to the article.

    For context, I live in NYC: I was shocked the other day when a well-educated friend of mine said, “Don’t you just love Jenny McCarthy for standing up for children’s rights in the face of so much pressure?”

    Wow.

    “No”, I said, “no, I don’t,” and I directed him here. It’s a stereotype, but I really didn’t expect something like this from a young person with an advanced degree who lives in NY. Scary.

  5. There’s a lot of BS out there masquerading as “medical knowledge” being passed on by people who are NOT qualified to do so. These people who clutch at straws about autism, cancer, etc. wouldn’t let a snake charmer tell them about financial investments, but they see no issue with letting a clearly conflicted set of con men (and women) advise them in matters of life and death.

    A lot of it is psychological — not wanting to believe that there’s NO way to explain autism in a beloved child. But some of it is also the fact that they “bought” the explanations from the snake charmers and can’t easily let it go without looking like fools for doing so.

    Recently, I had a person write to me asking if I’d help write up a “cure” for menopause. This person had NO background in endocrinology, gynecology, etc. but had made a fortune selling some quack medicines to women.

    This person wanted me to write it up scientifically to help sell more of it. I asked a lot of questions to gauge what this person knew about women’s bodies, etc. and the more I heard the more disgusted I got. Not only had this person not even read easily available stuff online about women’s issues, this person had not even consulted a real doctor when developing these snake oil pills.

    When this person started to tell me the private medical information of women treated by this cure as a way of showing me that this cure was “accepted” and “legitimate”, that’s when I had heard enough. I politely declined to participate in the project. The person’s “team” kept after me, offering huge sums of money for my services. They were looking for respectability and a scientific “imprimatur” on their efforts. I’m not a doctor, but I do know enough that when I read this person’s so-called “professional literature” I could tell it was dodgy at best and downright dangerous at worst.

    So, there are quacks and charlatans out there. They’re preying on people who are already stressed and upset. It’s disgusting. And yet, they continue to prey on people, even when they’re caught red-handed lying and falsifying information in order to keep stealing money from frightened people.

    Thanks for the article, Phil.

  6. Todd W.

    @ccpetersen

    Did you report this person to the FDA or FTC by any chance? If not, I would recommend doing so.

  7. Scott

    I wonder at what point we will see a lawsuit for wrongful death or something similar against the antivaxxers because of their part in bringing back diseases that had been essentially banished.

  8. Todd, this person HAS been investigated by FDA and FTC… don’t know the outcome. Could still be under consideration. That was also why I refused to become involved. I think they are also under investigation in their home state(s) (there’s more than one person on the team) of NY, PA and FL.

  9. One Eyed Jack

    You’re very optimistic if you think this or anything else will sway the anti-vax crowd. It is a religious fervor with them. Evidence and reason have no place in their world.

  10. Cracked Magazine, of all places, has a nice, succinct rebuttal to the anti-vaxxers at their website here:

    http://www.cracked.com/article_17084_5-ways-people-are-trying-save-world-that-dont-work.html

    It’s number four on the list.

  11. I must admit a shameful past. There was a time, years ago, when I was anti-vaccine. Not because of the autism thing, but out of a genuine belief that natural immunity is “better”. If you’d asked me then, I couldn’t tell you what better meant, but it had to be so. The belief stemmed from two things…

    First, the MMR shot is contraindicated for me due to allergy. Consequently, I’ve never had it. I have, however, had measles, mumps and rubella as a child and came through just fine. That fact led me to downplay the seriousness of these diseases.

    Second, in the fog of ignorance, I was unaware that people in civilized places still died of these diseases. After all, if these diseases are merely an irritant as opposed to life-threatening, then it really doesn’t matter if people get vaccinated or not.

    Wow. Did I have a lot to learn.

    In 1991, a friend of mine came down with measles. This hospitalized him. Measles, it seems, it quite nasty to get as an adult. Soon I was interested, and I started to do my own reading. And learn I did. I was lucky – nobody had to die for me to get the message. Would that I applied the same standards of sense to this issue that I would to other things, I could have spared myself years of harmful ignorance. In my defence, I can only claim that I was young, but the truth is, I was simply blind to the reality… infected by a type of woo.

  12. Daniel J. Andrews

    O.E. Jack is right. Nothing will change the anti-vaxxers’ minds. However, this information does help with those who aren’t sure or may have heard something about the autism side-effect of the normally beneficial vaccine. I was in that category just a few months ago, but thanks to Phil and later Orac (as well as the antivacciners themselves**) I feel much more educated on the subject.

    **the weaknesses, the lies, the distortions, the appeals to belief at the expense of evidence shown by antivax sites destroyed their credibility. If you have to resort to those arguments to make your point, your point isn’t worth making. Then throw in a conspiracy theory on top of that….siggghhhh. They sounded like AGW deniers who also have destroyed their credibility in a similar manner.

  13. ND

    ccpetersen,

    Naive question, would it be inappropriate to name this scum? I’m guessing the answer is yes if you can’t easily prove the fraud. But I’d love to see people like these exposed to the public.

  14. @BA “But none of his posts has ever done so in such a remarkably thorough fashion as in this lengthy post in which he destroys the movement from top to bottom. What we have there, ladies and gentlemen, is the be-all and end-all of posts about the antivaxxers, showing their lack of evidence, their ad hominem attacks, their lies, their fraud, and everything else that makes them one of the greatest health threats in the United States, if not the world.”

    Great, now that the anti-vaccination movement has been “destroyed” by David Gorski one would assume that this will be your last post on the topic. Is that right, Phil? It’s dead. It’s destroyed. We don’t need to talk about it anymore. Yeah, sure.

  15. Lawrence

    It is highly unfortunate that most people don’t realize the life-threatening nature of these illnesses. Ironically, the parents of today that refuse to vaccinate their children were spared these diseases because “their” parents were almost religious about making sure their kids were safe.

    This comes from the experience of the grandparents, who did see kids get measles, mumps, rubella, polio, etc & wished something could have been done. It is all well and good, until one of these very nasty diseases makes a true comeback – perhaps in a vaccine-resistant form. Then we are well and truly screwed.

  16. Cheyenne

    Great anti-vax link. That’s going to get forwarded on.

    Is there a chance that in some of the parents who have autistic children (or some other problem), that they want to look toward the anti-vax crowd because they don’t want to feel “responsible” (which they aren’t) for the conditions of their children? That they don’t want to feel that it’s their genes or whatever that caused this to happen to their children – so they want something (or someone like “Big Pharma”) to blame and will reach out to causes like this?

    I’m not trying to get all Freudian but I really think there are some deep seated motivations behind why people will blindly ignore the science and multitude of studies behind vaccination.

  17. Lawrence

    @Tom

    I believe BA will stop posting when the AntiVaxxers stop spreading lies & disinformation.

  18. Todd W.

    @ccpetersen

    Regardless of whether they are currently under investigation or were previously, whatever info you have would be good to pass along to the FDA/FTC. Every added bit of info helps. Good to hear you didn’t get involved if you indeed suspected fraud.

  19. TheBlackCat

    It is definitely a great run-down of the anti-vax movement. Unfortunately it does not cover any of the actual evidence against the anti-vaxxers, which there is a huge amount of. That may be a blog post (or book) in and of itself, though.

  20. ND

    Todd W,

    Then again, how would the FDA/FTC think of ccpetersen talking to this guy. Would they consider this as helping them?

  21. @Lawrence “I believe BA will stop posting when the AntiVaxxers stop spreading lies & disinformation.”

    I don’t see that happening anytime soon. So in what sense did Gorksi “destroy the movement from top to bottom”? Perhaps that was a bit of hyperbole by the BA? If blogging and snark could destroy the anti-vax movement it would already be defunct by now.

  22. Unfortunately it does not cover any of the actual evidence against the anti-vaxxers, which there is a huge amount of. That may be a blog post (or book) in and of itself, though.

    That would be Paul Offit’s book Autism’s False Prophets. Ben Goldacre also covers it a bit in Bad Science.

  23. Todd W.

    @ND

    I suppose it would depend on how she goes about it. If she informs them that these people are soliciting her to generate what could be fraudulent advertising materials, and if she could provide evidence of such actions, that would be some significant evidence against those people. Considering that FTC, and even more so the FDA, is somewhat understaffed to deal with all the crud being promoted, every little added bit can help, as long as the evidence is reasonably solid.

    Though, I suppose since I don’t know the details of the situation, there may be something that would speak against reporting.

  24. ND

    Todd W,

    Probably good to consult a lawyer :(

  25. Re Cheyenne’s post:

    Is there a chance that in some of the parents who have autistic children (or some other problem), that they want to look toward the anti-vax crowd because they don’t want to feel “responsible” (which they aren’t) for the conditions of their children? That they don’t want to feel that it’s their genes or whatever that caused this to happen to their children – so they want something (or someone like “Big Pharma”) to blame and will reach out to causes like this?

    I think this is a big part of it. The real wickedness of the anti-vax cultists is that they “sell” the parents of the autistic kids “the disease” AND “the cure”. That is, they take these folk, who are distraught and want to know, above all, why their child is autistic, and say to them: “Psst! – it was the vaccines! Didn’t you suspect…?”.

    Having then sold the parents terrible guilt, as they are told it was the vaccines that they chose to give that made their kids autistic, the anti-vax cultist then sells them the cure (or rather, the agency to blame):

    “It wasn’t YOUR FAULT. It was THEM. Big Pharma. Sell-out Doctors, their agents. The Evil Gubmint. THEY ALL LIED TO YOU!”

    It is this double-sell of the guilt -what could be worse for a parent than to be told that something you agreed to damaged your kid? – AND then the cult belief, all to people in terrible distress, that makes me loathe the anti-vax cult-ists so much. Parents caught in this belief trap spend years, even decades, and quite possibly all their money, pursuing this fruitless obsession – see the recent Autism Omnibus judgements Orac refers to.

    In many ways it is classic cult tactics – identify the vulnerable, induct them into a special reality where they are made to feel flawed and lost… And then offer them validation in a community of the like-minded, provided they will agree to see everything in the world 100% YOUR way.

  26. Before I read the article, I just wanted to say that Phil, one of your entries…I guess it was around 6-7 months ago, was perhaps the best debunking of the anti-vax I’ve ever read.

    You have a knack for providing the science, as well as the humanity. You’re never cold or callous, and although you may not convert the hardliners, the moderates would surely be one over by your humanity and your good humor. This is one of the reasons why you’re great for the JREF, because you’re an absolute ideal spokesperson for skeptical activism.

    Do I sound like a sycophant yet? Yeah…..I thought so.

    Thanks for the link.

  27. ND

    Evolving Squid,

    Your personal experience gives you insight into how one can be swayed by woo and that’s invaluable. However you were able to see through while others can’t

  28. @Dr Aust “Having then sold the parents terrible guilt, as they are told it was the vaccines that they chose to give that made their kids autistic, the anti-vax cultist then sells them the cure (or rather, the agency to blame):
    “It wasn’t YOUR FAULT. It was THEM. Big Pharma. Sell-out Doctors, their agents. The Evil Gubmint. THEY ALL LIED TO YOU!””

    Actually the cure is much more specific than that. Telling folks that the government lied to them is not a cure. Most of them already know that the government is filled with pathological liars. Among the actual cures being promoted by DAN!, ASA, and various other woo providers are the following:

    1.) anti-fungus therapy
    2.) anti-yeast therapy
    3.) audio integration therapy (sometimes called tomatis)
    4.) cassein-free, gluten-free diets
    5.) chelation to remove mercury from the body
    6.) facilitated communication
    7.) holding therapy
    8.) homeopathic therapy
    9.) hyperbaric chamber therapy
    10.) music therapy
    11.) risperdal
    12.) vitamin B6 therapy

    From A through Z take your pick of autism woo cures. I once had someone at a conference try to sell me 40 hours of tomatis therapy for $1,800. It’s a pity that this vast list of autism “cures” hasn’t been the main topic of a post here. For parents of autistic children I would highly recommend you check out the following web site which goes over the scientific evidence (or usually lack thereof) for the various alleged treatments:

    http://www.asatonline.org/resources/treatments_desc.htm

    “Parents caught in this belief trap spend years, even decades, and quite possibly all their money, pursuing this fruitless obsession – see the recent Autism Omnibus judgements Orac refers to.”

    Yes, and all of this is made possible by the medical establishment yielding the field of battle to the anti-vaxxers. When I have time I will post my experience with the mainstream medical establishment – the almighty Meyer Center for Developmental Pediatrics and how they made me and my family feel like complete dirt – but that’s a topic for another day.

  29. ND, Todd,

    I backed away from working with them when I found that they WERE being investigated.

    I’m not an investigator or an accuser. I’m just a writer who was approached about doing a job. Once I found out what the product was and how the conduct of the company was, I made a decision not to get involved. Period.

  30. Thanks for the great link, Phil. I’ll do my best to spread the word.

  31. TPO

    Excellent post!

    I re-posted in several venues.

    MySpace – Ode to the Anti-Vaccination Movement
    Blogspot – Ode to the Anti-Vaccination Movement
    Atheist Nexus – Ode to the Anti-Vaccination Movement

  32. molly

    I agree with posters who have said you’ll never convince the nutters. I’ve read their crazy message boards and they are off the rails. Once I was reading along where someone was saying, “I wouldn’t worry about autism from vaccines…” and I thought, Right On! Sanity At Last! And then I continued reading: “…there are far worse things in vaccines to worry about!”
    So even if we convince all subscribers of mothering magazine that autism and MMR are unrelated, they’ll come up with something wackier.

  33. Rift

    It’s not about convincing the nutters. Much like the devout moon hoax believers, creationists/IDers, face and mars nuts, ad infitium, those people are far gone to care about. However this still needs to be talked about and sung to high heaven, just like those misconceptions to convince those that are NOT yet nutters, the fence sitters.

    @Tom, if you don’t like that Phil keeps talking about the anti-vaxers, then stop reading those posts. I for one hopes he keeps it up forever as he had the moan hoax, Hoagland, planet X, etc, etc. This needs to be kept up forever… The good fight will never be ‘won’, but we can reduce those seduced my the likes of Jenny McCarthy.

    Phil doesn’t say the movement is dead, he says that the link ‘destroys’ any supposed ‘evidence’. Creationism, for example, has no leg to stand on, and all evidence has been destroyed, there IS no evidence for creationism or anti-vax/autism link.

    Your upset over semantics or something, Tom. Why on EARTH would you want people to stop fighting ANY of these pseudoscience beliefs???

  34. The message that science should stop looking at a vaccine related cause is just part of the message. Too much time, energy, hope, prayer, etc. has been expended looking for this mythical link to the detriment of looking for better treatment, better education services, better family services, etc. Families with autistic kids need help bearing the burden of the uninsured *astronomical* costs of raising such a child. THAT is where the focus should be.

  35. idav

    Behold! The beautiful progress of science.

    Some times I wonder if I should just give the creationists a pass on their “Well your science is just another religion argument. Not that it’s at all true, but just because even if we did settle for that we’d still be better off. At least science has error correction code. :-p

  36. Nigel Depledge

    Cheyenne said:

    I’m not trying to get all Freudian but I really think there are some deep seated motivations behind why people will blindly ignore the science and multitude of studies behind vaccination.

    To a large extent, I blame the mass media for this whole set of scares.

    When Wakefield first publicised his “theory” (for which read marketing hype), the newspapers and TV stations in the UK were all over the story like a rash, which huge front-page headlines. When Wakefield was proven to be wrong, it may have got an inch or two on page 12.

    According to Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science (which I thoroughly recommend to everyone), the newspapers did not permit their science correspondents to write the big front-page articles. Apparently, it was too big a story for a science correspondent – instead it had to go to the flavour of the month. (Evidence for this comes from Goldacre himself, who was a science correspondent on a national UK newspaper at the time).

  37. Nigel Depledge

    FreeSpeaker said:

    The message that science should stop looking at a vaccine related cause is just part of the message. Too much time, energy, hope, prayer, etc. has been expended looking for this mythical link to the detriment of looking for better treatment, better education services, better family services, etc. Families with autistic kids need help bearing the burden of the uninsured *astronomical* costs of raising such a child. THAT is where the focus should be.

    You missed one: research into the real causes of autism.

  38. @Rift “Phil doesn’t say the movement is dead, he says that the link ‘destroys’ any supposed ‘evidence’.”

    No, go back and read what Phil said again:

    “… as in this lengthy post in which he destroys the movement from top to bottom.”

    DESTROYS THE MOVEMENT is the operative term. As Mark Twain once said, rumors of the destruction of the anti-vax movement have been greatly exaggerated. Gorksi himself says in his article that the anti-vax movement had its most successful year in 2008.

    In the following 18 states of the union parents can opt out of the public school enrollment requirements for vaccination: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. All states except Mississippi and West Virginia allow parents to opt out of vaccination requirements for religious reasons. Just how is the anti-vaccination movement destroyed? In all but two states parents can choose to send their unvaccinated children to public school.

  39. Brief correction: the 18 states cited allow parents to opt out of vaccination requirements for personal or philosophical reasons.

  40. Todd W.

    I have to agree with Tom Marking regarding the bit of hyperbole on Phil’s part. While it may make us feel good to think that “this is the death-blow to the antivax movement”, that just isn’t so. It may, and hopefully will, have a significant impact, but “destroy” is a bit, um, exaggerated. If it is disseminated, and fence-sitters read it, it will hopefully help guide them to the truth about the issue. But the hard-liners, like Barbara Loe Fisher, of the National Vaccine Information Center, will probably not change their tune. As she quotes herself on her blog, Vaccine Awakenings:

    “And if it’s not thimerosal, then it must be some other vaccine-related interaction, said Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center.”

    Her blog is full of conspiracy-style comments like that one, couched in language that seems reasonable. People like that will likely not change.

  41. I just noticed that Newsweek has a very good article online called “Autism : How Childhood Vaccines Become Villians”.

    My name has the link.

  42. Please keep up the good work with the anti-vax skepticism. I’m convinced that the human need to feel in control is driving these people to jump to conclusions because the alternative is accepting randomness in our lives. The same human reaction occurs after school shootings or most any random violence. We desperately want to be in control, want to be reassured that life won’t surprise us that we grasp at solutions that immediate and appease but are more like security-theater than an effective solution.

  43. SicPreFix

    One Eyed Jack said:

    “You’re very optimistic if you think this or anything else will sway the anti-vax crowd. It is a religious fervor with them. Evidence and reason have no place in their world.”

    That is so sadly and dreadfully true. I pointed an acquaintance of mine to the post. His response?

    “Oh gee, yet another unbridled, envious, hateful, and completely fabricated attack on celebrity and successful people.”

    WTF?!?

  44. Greg

    Tom Marking said:

    “…10.) music therapy
    11.) risperdal
    12.) vitamin B6 therapy…”

    Um, Tom, Risperdal doesn’t belong in this list. It’s a legitimate treatment for a symptom of Autism, that of uncontrollable tantrums. The website you link explains that as well. The rest of that list? crazier than a bag of hammers, of course.

    Sorry for the nit-pick, but, to get all anecdotal for a moment ;) , I’ve seen that med. reduce my son’s tantrums (he has Asperger’s) from 2-3 a day to 1-2 a week.

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