Penn and Teller take on vaccines

By Phil Plait | August 30, 2010 8:23 am

I have long beaten the drum against the antivaxxers: people who falsely claim that vaccines cause autism, or are loaded with toxins. These groups are loud, in many cases vicious, and all have one thing in common: they are wrong, wrong, wrong. The evidence is overwhelming that vaccines don’t cause autism, for example. We know they don’t.

Despite that, it’s clear that the emotional arguments of antivax groups have some traction among people, especially new parents who are understandably concerned and nervous about their children’s health. We here on the reality side of things can talk facts, statistics, and evidence all we want, but to penetrate through to reason we sometimes have to make our arguments more visceral. More demonstrative.

And that’s why I loved the recent episode of Penn & Teller’s show about vaccines. They used facts and figures, but they also use humor and emotion, and it’s really effective. In a brilliant move, they opened their show with a fantastic demonstration of just why we need to vaccinate our kids [very NSFW language]:

I love it! That is precisely right: even if vaccines caused the woes antivaxxers claim — and as Penn says clearly, they don’t — by sheer numbers it’s clear that vaccinations are still critical.

I can’t stop people from listening to the nonsense the antivaxxers spew, but I can hope that the more we talk about it — and the more we show it — the more people will realize that the antivaxxers are not just wrong, but doing something unconscionable: putting our children’s lives at risk.


Related posts:

Immunization FAQ and some nice stories
How safe is Gardasil, and a new antivax FAQ
Antivaxxers take note: vaccines stop polio outbreak in Tajikistan
BREAKING: Australian antivax group slammed for "misleading and inaccurate information"
The vaccine song


Comments (107)

  1. Just. Frakkin. Brilliant.

    I thought those were grapefruits for a moment there! :lol:
    I’m going to embed this on my astronomy club’s website’s announcement page.
    At the bottom:
    http://www.cvilleastro.org/casevents.php

    For those of you going to Dragon*Con, I’ll be at the Astrosphere New Media table on Friday & Saturday afternoons. Come on by and yakk a while!

  2. Steve

    I have a very pronounced limp from a bout of polio as a child (before the vaccine). Trust me, you do not want your kids (or anyone) to have all the physical woes I have been through in my life! I’ve fine, mentally, but would love to be able to avoid the pain, limp, surgeries, ad nauseum. Don’t expose your kids to troubles that can easily be avoided.

  3. drow

    behold, the hand of a cruel and uncaring god casting stones of plague and malady upon his people. his name is Teller.

  4. Gary Ansorge

    3. drow

    How can a god be both cruel AND uncaring? Seems like an oxymoron to me.

    Gary 7

  5. Theron

    My father had polio back in the 1950s, but fully recovered eventually — never finished Eagle though, because he couldn’t do the swimming at the time. Now at 70, however, he’s dealing with post-polio syndrome. The upside — people are very deferential to a guy with a cane. He gets ushered to the front of the line and things like that. The downside — he needs a cane, among other things.

    Anti-vaxxers just make me nuts. The arrogance of ignorance is one of the more infuriating features of human behavior. Socrates taught something to the effect that wisdom begins with an acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance. And that’s just the problem with these folks – they have never thought to examine their own ideas with a critical eye.

  6. OtherRob

    That was beautiful.

  7. Dave

    This is fabulous. Nothing like visuals to make a point.

    I loved “… which it f-ing doesn’t”

  8. Timmy

    Excerpt from my favorite Youtube comment below. Just… wow…

    “All one has to do is look at what goes into vaccines: dead babies, monkey kidneys, chicken embryos, mercury, caterpillar eggs, cow pus, aluminum, formaldehyde etc. etc.”

  9. One Eyed Jack

    @Theron #5

    Don’t be fooled by the “arrogance of ignorance” that you mentioned. It isn’t pride. It’s a defensive mechanism to hide a deeper fear.

    Anti-vaxxers don’t resist because of pride. They resist because of fear mixed with ignorance. They fear for their child’s safety and in their ignorance they have latched on to something that makes them feel they are protecting their child. To change their minds, they must accept that they have been wrong, and (with the best of intentions) have actually been putting their child at greater risk. To accept that they have been doing something to actually harm their child is an extremely hard pill to swallow.

    Perhaps their is some arrogance or pride there, but I don’t think it’s because they are afraid of being shown as ignorant. It’s because they can’t face the frightening fact that they have put their child in harm’s way.

    That is why an emotional/visual impact like the Penn and Teller video may be effective where facts and figures are not. It takes a sudden jolt or an “aha moment” to break through that defensive wall built on emotion.

  10. I can’t stop people from listening to the nonsense the antivaxxers spew, but I can hope that the more we talk about it — and the more we show it — the more people will realize that the antivaxxers are not just wrong, but doing something unconscionable: putting our children’s lives at risk.

    Are you sure you aren’t being a Dick here, Phil? These are rather strident statements. True, but a bit mean don’t you think? (sarcasm)

    I do think such stridency is perfectly applicable when dealing with delusional people like antivaxxers (and others). Love the video, too.

  11. Well, it took 12 comments before DBAD came up. I’m surprised it took that long.

    Lynn (12), I’m not being a dick. As I said in the talk, and in the subsequent posts, we need our passion and our anger. But I didn’t insult them, or use ad hominems or anything like that. Being forceful is not necessarily the same as being a dick.

  12. @One Eyed Jack,

    It’s sort of like someone who has gotten scammed by one of those Nigerian scammers. You could say “Ok, I was a fool and lost a few thousand but I’ll stop now” or you could cling to some tiny, tattered shred of hope that this guy is really telling you the truth and that sending another $5,000 to ‘clear administrative hurdles’ will get you your millions. The logical thing to do is the former but most people will do the latter. They just can’t accept facing the truth and so dig in deeper into the fantasy.

    And that’s just financial loss. As a parent, I know that the desire to protect your children is extremely strong. I can definitely see how it would be very hard to admit that you did something to endanger your kids.

  13. I was surprised it took that long too. :-)
    I’m rarely first at anything!

  14. @Timmy,

    Sometimes I think the X Is In Vaccines list is generated like so: X is matter. Vaccines contain matter. Therefore, Vaccines contain X!

    Hey, I can put together my own list too. Did you know vaccines contain eyelids, eye of newt, toe of frog, brussel sprouts, Mercury (the planet) and snails? It’s true. I heard it from my friend’s cousin’s brother’s step-mother who read it somewhere online!

  15. Jim Galasyn — I don’t know about Teller (besides the fact he’s written some very good articles about magicians over the years), but Penn makes no bones about being a laissez-faire libertarian (which I would define as someone who doesn’t mind what corporations do in their free time, as long as it doesn’t interfere with one’s ability to make a fast buck). Caught him recently on a cable program during which Tommy Smothers berated him for being a Glenn Beck acolyte. I don’t agree with his ideology, but overall (particularly this episode) the BS! show is a relief from the usual pop culture pablum.

  16. @Mike from Tribeca

    What’s really interesting is that although Penn is very vocally anti-“The Man”, on the subject of vaccines, he is very much in favor of the government’s stance. In a solo video he did to discuss developments which occurred after they wrapped this episode, he makes that statement very clear, pointing out how it is contrary to his typical thoughts on government.

  17. I heard on the radio this weekend that there were 3000 cases of whooping cough the past year in CA, with 7 deaths. They said that was 7 times the average number of cases. These were horrible, preventable deaths – they suffocated because they could not draw in a breath between the hard, wracking coughs. Every vaccination denier should be forced to watch a video of a child dieing this way.

  18. Jeremy

    Ok, this might be comment jacking, but…

    I saw some of the criticisms of your DBAD speech, and I find them to be unfounded. Although you did give a specific incident, I can tell your speech was a broad generalization of how human minds work. Everyone can claim they were converted by a dick (and a lot of people have thick skin, so this will work for them), but we know for general convincing purposes you will have better chances of success by not being sarcastic, snarky, or with ridicule. Mr. Dawkins has said that you “forgot” about the third party that would be listening in. He wants to convince those people, and feels that ridicule is a good way to achieve that. Mr. Dawkins did not listen to your talk, or missed the most important part.

    “what is your end goal”

    If Richard’s end goal is to convince a third party, then that is fine. You weren’t speaking about that situation you were talking about convincing your opponent. Two different end goals, and therefore it’s comparing apples to oranges.

    Fantastic job Phil. Keep it up!

  19. @Ray Burleigh

    Anti-vaxers will trot out the fact that pertussis is cyclic in nature, increasing in incidence every 5 years or so. This year happens to coincide with it. That may, indeed, be a contributing factor to the number of cases in CA, but I’d wager there are some additional factors in there, one of which is lower pertussis coverage, seeing as the epidemic seems to be located largely in regions with low pertussis vaccine uptake (for a variety of reasons). Not the only reason, I’m sure, but it is a contributing factor.

  20. Okay, wait – are we going about this all wrong? Should we just say the vaccines are made with homeopathic water and be done with it? The wooparents wouldn’t be able to give them to their kids fast enough…

    And, there’s more than an ounce of truth to that, too. The whole “like cures like” thing is whimsically related to the induction of an immune response that most vaccines accomplish, anyway. We’re on solid ground here!

  21. Buzz Parsec

    @TechyDad and @Timmy,

    Not to mention how many water molecules in a typical shot were once processed by Julius Caesar’s kidneys. (Probably millions or billions, I’ve read calculations like this for a glass of water, and since liquid vaccines are mostly water, you just need to divide by a hundred or so to account for volume.)

    Isaac Asimov wrote a book once mostly about big numbers. The first chapter, which lent its name to the book, was about some incredibly rare isotope. He spent most of the chapter describing just how rare it was. Then he asked the question “how many atoms of this are in a typical cubic meter of the Earth’s crust?” The answer, and the title of the book, was “Almost none. Only a trillion.”

    There is some amount of *everything* in vaccines, no matter how pure. There is some amount of everything in your food, the air you breath, the water you drink, the dirt under your fingernails, usually much more than in vaccines.

  22. I found the entire Penn & Teller show here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aky-sRri-NQ&NR=1

    It’s great, they even show the anti vaxxers “side” of the story.

  23. Kimpatsu

    …the more people will realize that the antivaxxers are not just wrong, but doing something unconscionable: putting our children’s lives at risk.
    But Phil, parents as a bloc don’t care about putting “our” children’s lives at risk; they care only about their OWN children’s lives. Hence, is all other kids died of polio or pertussis or the lurgi, they wouldn’t care so long as their OWN little darlings were safe. What we need to do here is teach empathy; that everyone should love everyone else’s children as much as they love their own children. After all, it takes a village…

  24. Mat

    Awesome video, but I have one question (and do not take this as suggesting that I believe in the anti-vaccine movement, because I do not)- has there been any studies on the preservative factors and other items that companies put into vaccines and/or how they interact with other chemical compounds in regards to the effects on the human body? I ask as any one these chemicals alone may cause no harm, but some combination may create some sort of adverse/unforeseen affect.

    Again, I ask not because I think autism is related to vaccines (I think autism probably has more to do with the age of the parent or some chaotic interaction of chemicals), but was asking as a concerned parent. I will usually ask doctors to give me and my children vaccines excluding most preservatives.

    Lastly, Penn & Teller dont believe in global warming because, well, they can think for themselves.

  25. Todd W — thanks for the info. As a fan of P&T’s show, as well as their magician’s chops, that’s good to know. To be fair to Penn, on the show I mentioned (Showtime’s “The Green Room”) he heartily disagreed with Tommy Smothers’ opinion of him.

  26. Mike from Tribeca: Penn and Teller’s show may be worthwhile otherwise, but their “Environmental Hysteria” episode was dead wrong on many counts, siding with the much-discredited Bjørn Lomborg against biologists, as well as siding with global warming denialists against the climate science community.

    If they can’t get these basic scientific facts right, then their judgment about anything else is similarly questionable.

  27. tony bateson

    I am not an ‘anti-vaxxer’ as it happens, I just believe that autism is caused by vaccines and absolutely nothing else. For years I have invited the vociferous vaccine gallery to tell me where are the missing autistic people in Britain perhaps Penn and Teller can find them. I invite them at my expense, come to Britain and show me where they are. I mean of course the unvaccinated autistic people there are plenty of the other type in fact there are over half a million of the vaccinated type of autism. I am looking seriously hard for the unvaccinated type. Penn and Teller are welcome I repeat at my expense!

    No one in Britain has found me such a person, no one in the USA has found me such a person and like all the others I have invited to meet this challenge Penn and Teller will no doubt decline. If not I am waiting. You see if you found an unvaccinated autistic person he or she would be a scientific curiosity and a subject of much research. It is possible that a mother’s amalgam dental treatment in the early stages of pregnancy (one known) or even RhoGam administered in pregnancy (none known) or some other exposure to mercury might be found, but I doubt it I repeat I think it is simply vaccines!

    Tony Bateson, Oxford, UK.

  28. Nate

    I would so use this in class (HS science) if they could do a version with cleaned up, but still forceful, language. Hopefully…?

  29. I liked this vid. However I think there is a far better demonstration.

    Make the green people represent unvaccinated folks (too young, allergies, ignorant, whatever), then screw down all the other people (get rid of the screen) on the left side so they cant fall over. Then when they throw the ball, it will bounce off the vaccinated people, protecting the green ones, whereas on the other side everyone gets sick.

    You could even show that as the population of green people increases, the chances of them getting hit greatly increase.

  30. Ah, post-and-run Bateson has paid a visit. As someone mentioned over at RI when you showed up, Tony, you need to actually stick around and see what other people actually say, instead of posting your blather and never returning.

    I know of at least one unvaccinated autistic individual, who has been pointed out to you multiple times: Kim Stagliano’s youngest daughter.

  31. Theron

    Bateson reminds me of folks who claim they are waiting for “one, just one!” of a) a transitional fossil; b) evolution observed in modern species; c) a Muslim leader condemning terrorism — etc., etc.

  32. Wow, that f**k***g vaccination segment by P&T is fantastic! Right m++th+rf++king on! ;-)

    But tis true what some other posters have said. Sometimes P&T sacriface fairness and balance for entertainment value. They NEED something to disagree with to make the show work.

    But on the balance, they are using their comic superpowers for good, not evil.

  33. Jim Galasyn — Gotcha, but I guess I’m so cynical/skeptical after decades of reading and watching simplistic, pro-business science “reporting” that I’ve become overly forgiving when someone gets it right once in a while.

  34. Baredil

    I find it interesting how often people assume that because a person generally holds a certain point of view, Penn’s tendency towards libertarianism in this case, that they can’t have views on some topics that don’t follow the ‘party line’. #5’s comment suggests because he is (or was; Phil may have shown him the light) unconvinced on AGW that he obviously couldn’t have a valid opinion on anything else. #17 and #18 reflect this as well; just because Penn is generally against government intervention doesn’t mean he can’t acknowledge when government does something right.

    As convenient as it may be, people can’t just be shoved into little ideological boxes. We contain multitudes.

  35. Stephen Booth

    Even if some people have a bad reaction to vaccines, it must be a very small number given the sheer number of people who get vaccinated and the dearth of even suspected bad reactions.

    How many people have a bad, terminal even, reaction to shellfish and fish? Loads! How many people have a bad, terminal even, reaction to nuts? Loads! Heck there are entire populations who due to a genetic crapshot have a severe bad reaction to the pollen of the Fava bean plant causing anything from bad hay fever symptoms to bleeding from every orifice and, if not treated, death. Where are the movements dedicated to banning shellfish, fish, nuts and Fava beans?

    Fact is, even if a small number of people do have bad reactions to vaccines it sucks for them but, for the population as a whole it relieves a heck of a lot of suffering and illness and it reduces death rates. This is a good thing.

    Stephen

  36. Wayne on the plains

    Great demonstration, but can someone please explain to me the purpose of all the foul language? Aside from the juvenile humor value, I honestly don’t see the point, and it makes it far less likely that I’ll be sharing this with anyone.

  37. Jamie M

    did I miss something, or was there no accounting for the probability of an unvaccinated child contracting any of those diseases?

  38. Wayne on the plains — the reason P&T use profanity to describe their subjects is so they won’t get sued by their subjects for doing it. If they were to simply call someone a liar, they could be sued for slander, but to call that same person a #$@%! is considered by the courts to be simple “vulgar abuse.” I also doubt they’d get as big of a TV audience, especially highly-coveted prematurely jaded young viewers, if they didn’t use language that is considered shocking by some.

  39. Stephen Booth

    Tony Bateman,

    shortly after I left university (1993) I took a job working with people with learning difficulties. Many of these had autism and the majority of those (due to their age, many were in their 70s or older) were never vaccinated as children or were diagnosed with Autism (or at least the condition that was later shown to be Autism) before they were first vaccinated. What many of them, and people with other learning difficulties who had been in the same hospitals, did have was Hepatitis B due to it being endemic in ‘mental handicap’ hospitals for much of the 20th century. Had they been vaccinated they wouldn’t have caught it (so long as their boosters were kept up) and it would no longer be endemic.

    Stephen

  40. JRB

    Total thread jack, I know, but I figured since Phil broached it in comment 13 (in response to comment 12), I’ll go ahead and post this anyways:

    Sure, this is pretty tame by Penn & Teller standards on the dick meter. But, a lot of people have pointed out that going on stage and calling an unspecified number of people dicks for reasons that which you said are “trivially easy” to find (implying that a lot of people are participating in this behaviour) is a pretty big dick move. Compounding this is the fact that you pretty much refused to elaborate on what type of behaviour you consider to be dickish beyond saying not to yell at people or openly insult them (might as well told the room full of adults that fire is hot). In your reference to Kitty you also seemed to imply that it was bad that she felt ostracized from the skeptic community; however, as has apparently become your modus operandi, you never elaborate on exactly what behaviour had made her feel this way.

    Personally, I feel that the BIGGER dick thing is to make a speech you claimed was designed to “spark a conversation” and then completely withdraw from that conversation, dismissing the legitimate questions and concerns of your critics with nothing more than occasional and incredibly superficial and glib one or two line comments. (And despite ignoring that vast majority of those who had problems with your talk, you apparently found it appropriate to give a shout out to the “hundreds — hundreds — of people” who apparently agreed with you.)

    So while you might feel that you aren’t being a dick in this post because you haven’t called anyone names, in this skeptic’s mind your complete inability to acknowledge your critics in any meaningful way shows a complete lack of respect for (what appears to be) a good portion of the skeptical community. To me, that makes you just as insulting and just as big a dick as someone who calls people “morons” and “idiots”.

    So yes — while I recognize you can talk about what you want, when you want on your blog – by posting yet another post in which you completely ignore the fact that you have given one of the most divisive speeches I have ever seen come out of a TAM I feel that you are truly being a dick. And while you probably don’t care about the opinion of one anonymous, random internet poster I thought in light of your speech you might feel it appropriate for someone to point out when you were being a dick because you apparently have missed it yourself.

    [Because this is a crazily off topic thread jacking, this is going to be my only post on this topic in this or any other unrelated thread. I’d recommend other commenters, whether they disagree or agree with me, follow suit. If Phil ever bothers to address any of his DBAD critics in an additional post, I will be more than happy to continue this conversation there. Otherwise, this is my last post on the subject. I will continue to read and enjoy Phil’s articles while maintaining the opinion that he is kind of a dick for the reasons I outlined above.]

  41. Mike from Tribeca: Word. ^_^

  42. Buzz Parsec

    Just got my annual thimerosal! Woot! No flu for another year.

  43. locka99

    I think anti-vaccination people should have the right not to vaccinate. All they have to do is sign a form and waive the right for their children to be vaccinated.

    And if by any chance their child is infected with a disease they should be prosecuted for neglect and / or reckless endangerment. And if any other child who came into contact with their child also suffered, then they should face charges of assault / manslaughter. And all expenses incurred by hospitals or third parties should be borne by them too.

    So let them have the right to exercise their stupidity and be punished for any suffering or harm they put their kids through.

  44. Jeffersonian

    ah yes, P&T
    the pair that, when they have nothing else on their subjects, resort to ad hominem; are global warming denialists; and insist that secondhand smoke is harmless
    self-conflicters who prefer emotion to fact
    entertainment score: B-
    fact/science score: D+

  45. @Jeffersonian

    insist that secondhand smoke is harmless

    Except that they corrected themselves on that.

  46. Steve in Dublin

    Mat (#26):

    Lastly, Penn & Teller dont believe in global warming because, well, they can think for themselves.

    Where ‘think for themselves’ = choose to ignore the findings of the vast majority (98%) of climatologists who have extensively researched this topic.

    Ockham’s razor tells us that a more likely reason for their denial of AGW is their professed libertarian ideology.

  47. Zucchi

    #38, Wayne on the Plains: The “foul language” is part of English. Sometimes “bad” words are used for emphasis. It’s appropriate to say “…even if vaccines caused autism — which they fucking don’t!”

    When Penn & Teller are right, like here, they’re really right. When they’re wrong, it’s with the arrogance of people used to being right. (I say “they” even though Penn is the only one talking.)

  48. Oli

    Steve in Dublin (#48) – There’s still 2% of researches who have extensively researched the subject that do not believe in it.

  49. For two other view son the subject:

    1. read today’s essay Is your child’s classmate unvaccinated?. Feel free to comment there, too.

    2. Kev Leitch, who does not believe that vaccines caused his child’s autism, thinks that the UK vaccine court was correct to compensate for a case where the MMR vaccine indeed caused injury to the recipient

  50. Steve in Dublin

    Oli (#50): we’re OT here so let’s not derail the thread (my bad for even responding to #26). Seeya on the next AGW thread :-)

  51. Well put #11, One Eyed Jack!
    You hit the nail on the head.

  52. L Ron Hubbub

    FWIW: after years of watching Penn & Teller I have come to consider Penn Gillette to be one of those dicks Phil complained about in his presentation.

    /not an anti-vaxer

  53. Jeff Wright

    This was their most important story yet–ranking right up there with the Criminal Justice episode.

  54. Bjørn

    I actually get mad watching these nutjobs!… mostly because there utter stupidity doesent just hurt them, but there kids and society as a whole…

    they see the word mecury, and think poison… But a glorified massage solves everything? they are so fast to come to a conclusion their simple minds isnt qualified to draw…

    Big thanks to Phil, Penn & Teller for their hard work to make these legends a thing of the past…

    I’m somewhat glad i dont understand these people… when i see vaccine, i think good… now i wont get sick… i dont even want to know how these people function…

    gah…people who deny their kids vaccines should get a call from child services… some people are just to dumb/ignorant to reproduce…

  55. Utakata

    Jim Galasyn @ 5 & 28, I agree with you to an extent. But most of us know Penn has a few big “blind spots,” especially when his political and economic views get in the way. But he is correct on this effective video. And this where we have to give him a pat on the back, as well as using it educate peep’s against antivax’s bogus claims.

    The only thing I find odd, is that the vaccines againts the ailments he’s cited work best in countries that practise universal health care to some degree, which obviously contradicts some of his more strident libertarian views.

  56. JJ(the other one)

    P&T on Global Warming – they put on bad/fringe experts, get some things wrong and it seems the consensus among posters here is that upon doing some deep/thorough research, P&T got it wrong.

    P&T on vaccines – they put on bad/fringe experts, only this time to make fun of them, then they put some good experts on, get it right and the consensus among posters here is that P&T’s position is in line with the deep/thorough research. So P&T got it right.

    So…what’s the problem?

    That they were wrong once means they’re incapable of being right? That would be demonstrably false.

    So what’s with all the “well they were wrong once so I don’t care to listen to them now” talk? That’s particularly poor critical thinking.

  57. Utakata

    Phil Plait @ 13 Says:

    “Lynn (12), I’m not being a dick. As I said in the talk, and in the subsequent posts, we need our passion and our anger. But I didn’t insult them, or use ad hominems or anything like that. Being forceful is not necessarily the same as being a dick.”

    But most skeptics do practise passion and anger as opposed to using ad hominems or anything like that. There is very little evidence for the contrary.I’m not sure anyone saw this yet, but Jerry Coyne summed up my conclusions best over “being a dick” meme at Why Evolution is True:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/08/22/are-we-phalluses/

    Anyways, my apologies for getting off-topic…but since you brought it up, I thought now was a good time to address it. :)

  58. Vicki

    I am surprised that the gentleman above (Tony) has found no unvaccinated autistic people. Autism existed prior to vaccination. I certainly have unvaccinated children with autism in my pediatric practice. Most of the other pediatricians I know also have unvaccinated children with autism in their practices.

  59. JJ asks, “So what’s with all the ‘well they were wrong once so I don’t care to listen to them now’ talk? That’s particularly poor critical thinking.

    Short and glib: falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus.

    But more to the point, in the “Environmental Hysteria” episode, they were wrong on many things and made no effort to consult actual scientists; they did not do deep/thorough research, and as far as I know have never corrected themselves. By itself, this is a deep enough character flaw to reduce their credibility greatly.

    Of course, I agree with them completely on vaccines — but they might be right by accident!

  60. Brian Too

    Great video. Brought out the relative importance of the risk factors. I’ve no objection to the language, considering P&T play to a younger, hip audience. Also, lives are at stake, you know? If you’re not angry then perhaps you don’t understand the situation!

  61. me

    Utakata sez: “But most skeptics do practise passion and anger as opposed to using ad hominems or anything like that. There is very little evidence for the contrary.”

    You have obviously not spent much time around engineers. ;]

    (and as for physicists, I love Fritz Zwicky’s “Spherical Bastards” insult, his explanation being “Because they were bastards, when looked at from any side”)

  62. Penn & Teller are decent with Science but when it comes to Economics and Social Issues, they’re full of crap and take the rich-people stance.

  63. Sean H.

    @64: It depends on the issue to be honest. Their Global Warming episode was horrible but their marijuana/drug prohibition was much more “liberal” than any democratic candidate for president has ever been. So was their episode on profanity. I’m somewhat conservative when it comes to gun rights so I liked their rational take on that, but I think their take on the EPA, American with Disabilities Act, and others were misleading at best.

    They’re self-professed libertarians so in most cases they’ll usually side with a laissez-faire side to an issue which can often lead to abuse by the rich(this didn’t happen with the drug prohibition or guns episode but that may just be an outlier). As far as inconvenient truths go their recycling episode was correct but it didn’t talk about reusing(eco-canteens instead of bottled water) and it didn’t mention that most landfills don’t vent off the methane to be used for electricity. I have family in Mansfield Ohio and they have an old landfill near their house(about 10 miles) that just has vents going straight up into the air.

  64. sophia8

    Tony Bateson is a well-known drive-by troll. He turns up anywhere that the vaccine-autism link is being critically discussed (as here) asking “Where are the autistic adults?”. This is because he believes that autism is a very recent phenomenon, entirely caused by filthy modern vaccines; so of course, there can’t be any autistics over about 25 years old.
    He then runs away, totally ignoring the autistic adults who appear in the comments to tell him “Hey, look at us, we’re here!”. He’s been doing it for years and nothing anyone says will change his mind.

  65. But do Penn and Teller really need to be such dicks about it?

    (Answer: Yes, they do. There is a time and place for dickishness, just as there is a time and place for being friendly and agreeable.)

  66. Daniel C

    “I love it! That is precisely right: even if vaccines caused the woes antivaxxers claim — and as Penn says clearly, they don’t — by sheer numbers it’s clear that vaccinations are still critical.”

    Right, because when deciding whether my kid should get vaccinations, I should think about the “sheer numbers” involved. Sorry little Stephen, but this is for the greater good!

    It’s a creepy line of reasoning. If vaccinations caused the problems some claim, then parents have legitimate reasons to keep their children from receiving them . . . social engineering notwithstanding.

    (Since I’m bound to get flamed for this, let me disclose something irrelevant: I’m not anti-vaccination; in fact, I’m pro-vaccination. But I am anti-bad-argument, even if I agree with the conclusions of the person committing bad judgment.)

  67. Sean

    I would like to point out that not all vaccines are perfectly safe. Vaccines are relatively safe, and there is a complex calculus that goes into determining which vaccines should be administered to which population. The vaccines that are recommended to the entire population of school-age kids for example, are pretty damn safe. Experimental vaccines, or exotic ones for soldiers in a war zone, maybe not so much. The body reacts in unpredictable ways to new antigens, and the power of your immune system to beat your ass down should not be underestimated.
    Vaccines are powerful medications, with inherent risks. Get all the vaccines you need, but don’t go on a frivolous shopping spree. The CDC guidelines are a good place to start.

  68. @Sean

    I would like to point out that not all vaccines are perfectly safe.

    Everyone here would agree with your statement. What is strange, though, is how many anti-vaxers have this warped view that people supporting vaccination supposedly claim that vaccines are perfectly safe. It’s so weird, since we’d be the first ones to say that they, like everything else in life, have some risks. The trick is putting the risks into proportion.

    Good advice to start with the CDC guidelines.

  69. Sean

    Thanks,
    I guess I wanted to point out that if a health agency pulls a vaccine, or changes the administration schedule due to a cluster of negative reactions, they probably have good reason to do so, and are not getting on the playboy bunny bandwagon.
    (note, probably only applies to countries with decent health standards…Maybe not so much in Nigeria).

  70. @locka99,

    The problem with this is that it is hard to prove that child X (who is too young, has allergies or can’t get vaccinated for another reason) got a vaccine-preventable illness because Person Y didn’t vaccinate their kids. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it would be impossible to prove it in a court of law.

    @Daniel C,

    The thing is that the risk from vaccinations are so tiny and the risk of the diseases they prevent is so high. Polio isn’t just something you have for a few days and then get over. It’s something that can kill children or permenantly disable them. Unfortunately, vaccines have been a victim of their own successes. Parents today don’t see the horrors of polio. They don’t know little Billy down the block who has been in the hospital for the past week with polio and haven’t seen Billy’s parents worried sick over whether he’ll survive or not.

    Instead, nowadays, vaccines are something parents see. So if someone says that there’s a risk if you get your kid vaccinated, the parents will take notice, not fully realizing the horrors that these vaccines prevent.

  71. @TechyDad

    The problem with this is that it is hard to prove that child X (who is too young, has allergies or can’t get vaccinated for another reason) got a vaccine-preventable illness because Person Y didn’t vaccinate their kids. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it would be impossible to prove it in a court of law.

    In a court, it may be possible. It would require identifying the strains that infected both people (DNA markers, for example). If they match, if child X became infected after exposure to person Y and if symptoms began within a typical timeframe after exposure to person Y, then it is probably quite likely that child X was infected by person Y.

    There’s an article on this over at Science-Based Medicine.

  72. I realize this will get me raked over the coals, but ah well. A few points…

    ~ Polio has already been eradicated in this country for decades. In fact, for many years the only causes of new cases were FROM VACCINES. OPV was used for years after it was known to cause polio in a rare few unlucky children who received it. It took many years for the CDC to finally pull it and insist on only IPV, and OPV is even still legally used today despite its risks.

    ~ Our government chooses to vaccinate infants because they can get the highest compliance rate, even when it is clearly not sensible. For instance, why vaccinate every newborn infant against Hepatitis B when it is a blood-transmitted disease and immunity generally wears off by age 7 for up to half of those who receive it, long before they’re at risk from sexual behavior or IV drug use that accounts for the greatest risk of contracting it? Why not test mothers and vaccinate those infants who have positive mothers or who live in close contact with those with the disease, instead of every single newborn, whether they are at risk or not?

    According to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), there were 425 total reports of adverse reactions from hepatitis B vaccine in 2009 in the 0-1 age group, with 21 deaths reported. The vast majority of those infants probably had absolutely no need for that vaccination.

    I am not opposed to all vaccinations, but when pro-vaccination people throw out all logic and common sense and see no harm in giving infants masses of multiple vaccinations at one time, vaccinating against illnesses that are not true risks and denying ANY suggestion that anything could ever be a risk with a vaccine… then it makes me see the pro-vaccination side as every bit as inflammatory, illogical and ignorant as you see the anti-vax side.

  73. @Mankato Green Culture Examiner

    Polio has already been eradicated in this country for decades. In fact, for many years the only causes of new cases were FROM VACCINES. OPV was used for years after it was known to cause polio in a rare few unlucky children who received it. It took many years for the CDC to finally pull it and insist on only IPV, and OPV is even still legally used today despite its risks.

    OPV has pretty significant risks. The choice to use it, then, must outweigh the risks of not using it. For example, in areas with low vaccine uptake and high risk of wild polio infection, OPV is the safer option, as it can “spread” immunization to other unvaccinated members of the household. OPV is very nearly 100% effective in preventing wild-type infection. When vaccination uptake is high or the risk of wild infection is low, then IPV is the vaccine of choice. It is less effective, but it does not carry the risk of VAPP.

    In the U.S., there is no good reason to currently use OPV. However, if the eradication program for polio fails, due to poor vaccine uptake worldwide, it may become necessary again. I hope not, due to the risks involved. It would be much better to eliminate polio and, thus, negate the need for any polio vaccine.

    why vaccinate every newborn infant against Hepatitis B when it is a blood-transmitted disease

    You mean through like via bites, scrapes, cuts, etc.? Also, there is evidence that Hep B can also be transmitted via saliva and can remain active on surfaces for up to around 7 days.

    immunity generally wears off by age 7 for up to half of those who receive it

    By which point, the risk of chronic Hep B infection (which can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer) is greatly reduced.

    Why not test mothers and vaccinate those infants who have positive mothers or who live in close contact with those with the disease, instead of every single newborn, whether they are at risk or not?

    That’s what was done. It didn’t have significant impact on Hep B infection rates.

    For more info, here’s a good place to start.

    According to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), there were 425 total reports of adverse reactions from hepatitis B vaccine in 2009 in the 0-1 age group, with 21 deaths reported.

    Do you know how many of those were substantiated? Also, of those 425 reported AEs, how many were for serious AEs vs., say, bruising or soreness at the injection site? The reason I ask these questions is because VAERS raw data is not very useful at giving an accurate picture of what’s really going on. Anyone can report just about anything to the database, whether there is a true causal connection or not. So, reports need to be investigated to see what actually happened and if there really is a causal relationship between the vaccine and the reported AE.

    I am not opposed to all vaccinations, but when pro-vaccination people throw out all logic and common sense and see no harm in giving infants masses of multiple vaccinations at one time, vaccinating against illnesses that are not true risks and denying ANY suggestion that anything could ever be a risk with a vaccine

    This is a straw man argument. Vaccine proponents, at least in my experience, acknowledge quite readily that vaccines carry risks. However, the risks of the recommended vaccines are significantly lower than the risks from the diseases they prevent. No one, in my experience, says that vaccines carry no risks or that there is no potential harm.

    A good primer on some vaccine-related issues can be found linked through my name.

  74. Mark Hansen

    Mankato, you supplied the very reason why children need vaccination for Hep B. As you point out IV drug use is a high-risk activity for Hep B. How many drug users do you know that dispose of their needles safely? How many children do you know that instinctively grab at everything in reach? Needlestick is also a transmission route for Hep B.

  75. Bo Gardiner

    I’m late to the DBAD discussion, and just finished reviewing the debate fairly thoroughly, I have to agree with your comment, JRB. I’ll be brief, so as not to threadjack too much, but not sure where else to say the following. Perhaps Phil would be willing to open up another thread on this.

    The timing of Phil’s TAM speech appears, I believe, to be about two weeks after the “mean atheist” outrage blew up basead on Mooney’s “Exhibit A” post waving a tale of sociopath atheists, later revealed as a hoax. Phil, your speech had to have been heavily influenced by that hoax, so as you’re a good skeptic, I urge to acknowledge that you were taken in by a hoax. It would be a major teachable moment for skepticism. It happens to the best of us.

  76. Nigel Depledge

    Mat (26) said:

    has there been any studies on the preservative factors and other items that companies put into vaccines and/or how they interact with other chemical compounds in regards to the effects on the human body? I ask as any one these chemicals alone may cause no harm, but some combination may create some sort of adverse/unforeseen affect.

    Er … yeah.

    The regulation of drugs in North America and Europe is such that no drug gets a licence until it has been tested in clinical trials. And these clinical trials go through three phases, but in at least the final phase of trials, the drug formulation (i.e. the solution or whatever in which the drug is delivered) must be the same as what is going to be sold once it gets a licence. Any changes to components of the formulation from that point onward must be thoroughly investigated before being introduced in the commercial product.

  77. Nigel Depledge

    Jim Galasyn (28) said:

    If they can’t get these basic scientific facts right, then their judgment about anything else is similarly questionable.

    This is a classic ad hominem. “They were wrong about A, therefore you cannot trust them about B to Z.”

    Judge the message, not the messenger.

  78. Nigel Depledge

    Tony Bateson (29) said:

    I am not an ‘anti-vaxxer’ as it happens, I just believe that autism is caused by vaccines and absolutely nothing else.

    Heh.

    Nice Poe. Or were you serious?

    You went on to say that no-one has yet shown you an autistic person who wasn’t vaccinated as a child. What do you think it would prove if they did? What do you think it would prove if no-one in Britain who has autism turned out not to have been vaccinated as a child?

    I have yet to meet an autistic person who has never eaten an apple. By your reasoning, that must mean that autism is caused by eating apples, and nothing else!!! ZOMG, think of the poor children !! We must burn all the orchards now!!!

    Your reasoning is an example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy (“after this, therefore because of this”). Correlation does not equal causation. To understand the causes, one would need to conduct a properly-controlled study. Your method of collecting “data” lacks any experimental control.

    In fact, your attitude is rather insulting to the medical and scientific professions. If autism had a simple single cause, we would know it by now.

    The causes (yes, it is almost certain that the causes are plural) of autism are complex. There is almost certainly a genetic factor, but it is not yet clear how big a factor this is or how many genes it may involve. There are probably environmental factors, but our best guess (as far as I understand it) is that these must act in concert, i.e. there is no single environmental factor.

    What we do know for sure is that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. A study of about 500,000 Danish children has established this. Since we know (for sure) that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, what other vaccines do you suppose cause autism, and what leads you to that conclusion?

    We also know that Andrew Wakefield, who started this whole nonsense about vaccines and autism, is a lying scumbag who abused children in order to promote his alternative to MMR.

  79. Nigel Depledge

    Locka99 (45) said:

    I think anti-vaccination people should have the right not to vaccinate. All they have to do is sign a form and waive the right for their children to be vaccinated.

    And if by any chance their child is infected with a disease they should be prosecuted for neglect and / or reckless endangerment.

    I sorta agree with this. After all, what right have parents to deny their children the best medical protection that is available?

    And if any other child who came into contact with their child also suffered, then they should face charges of assault / manslaughter. And all expenses incurred by hospitals or third parties should be borne by them too.

    Too difficult to prove, though.

  80. Nigel Depledge

    @ 48 Steve in Dublin and 50 Oli –

    Actually, I think the proportion of professional climatologists who are convinced that GW is anthropogenic is over 99%. IIUC, they are all convinced that it is real, and that it is a bad thing.

  81. Nigel Depledge

    Mankato Green Culture Examiner (75) said:

    Polio has already been eradicated in this country for decades. In fact, for many years the only causes of new cases were FROM VACCINES. OPV was used for years after it was known to cause polio in a rare few unlucky children who received it. It took many years for the CDC to finally pull it and insist on only IPV, and OPV is even still legally used today despite its risks.

    Polio is a very interesting case in and of itself. If it had not been for the efforts of antivaxxers in Nigeria, polio would have been eradicated worldwide about 5 – 8 years ago.

    So, for those unfortunate children who contracted polio from the vaccine, they have the antivaxxers to blame. If polio had been successfully eradicated (and there is every reason to believe that, had the vaccination rate in Nigeria been high enough, it would have been) then we would no longer need to vaccinate people against polio at all.

  82. k

    I was apparently among the irresponsible parents until yesterday.
    I thought my 14-year-old had all his shots.

    Went to a new doc yesterday for the boy’s physical, the old one closed her doors, blamed the economy, and moved away. New doc says that the old doc had some, “interesting ideas about vaccinations.” My boy has been walking around for years now, not fully vaccinated even though I asked every year, “Is he up to date? Does he need any shots this year?”

    So, everyone with kids, go check online and find out what all shots your kid has had and verify somehow that they don’t need any more and don’t necessarily trust your pediatrician. They might have an agenda.

  83. Chris Winter

    This is the most recent thread about vaccinations so I’ll add a link about Amy Wallace here.

    http://www.reportingonhealth.org/resources/lessons/covering-vaccines

  84. Kim

    Bravo on a great episode. I don’t always agree with P&T–the global warming episode, some of their more strident libertarian episodes–but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to dismiss them out of hand. Their show promotes rigorous thinking and questioning, something more television and media outlets need to do. And they (unlike many “news” shows) frequently admit their own biases.
    Plus, honestly? They’re always entertaining.

  85. Drew M.

    Oh my. The anti-vax nutters made a video of their own:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYI-dC9G0us

    My brain hurts from watching that idiocy.

  86. A nonymus

    Penn and Teller are comedians.
    Try this ask your Doctor for their Personal Opinion about vaccines.

  87. edgin putermon

    Penn and Teller are most likely bought and paid for by some government agency to be the voice of reason, you know calm everyone down. “Hey, there’s no man behind the curtain!!” Card tricks and misdirection. Why do they feel the need to step up and dismiss any ones’ sound for alarm? I see nothing wrong with questioning everything, especially in these times. Those two give me the creeps!

  88. Morgan

    I’m really confused. Where is the evidence that vaccinations are not one of the causes of autism?

  89. Mark McCurley

    Tell all this to my son who died from an allergic reaction to vaccine.

  90. nedn

    Morgan since you cannot disprove a negative what you are asking for is the opposite. You need to provide proof that vaccines cause autism. Logically you cannot disprove a negative.

    Mark well I’m sorry dude. The majority of people have vaccines fine.

  91. dusty

    what they don’t mention (and neither do the pro-vaccine people tell you) is that clean drinking water (one of the single most important factors in the eradication of disease), sterilization, hand washing, and general cleanliness also have a lot to do with getting rid of disease in the last century. i’m not saying that vaccines don’t help, and they have, but you can’t say that vaccines are the only thing that have helped the eradication of disease.

    simplistic and oh so irreverent explanations like this one are not the way to discuss these matters. they are no better than the anti-vaxxers in creating hyperbole.

    funny, but not funny.

  92. Its an odds game. What are the chances of your child getting a complication from the vaccination versus the odds of getting the disease and a complication or death from the disease. The fewer people that are vaccinated the more likely you are to get the disease. My children were vaccinated. The risk was worth it to me. I think it was well illustrated here.

  93. morons

    Why the hell is everyone arguing one side vs the other? What, so its like either vaccines are 100% magic healing power or they are 10x worse than arsenic? THEY AREN’T MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE!!

    Anyone who argues that kids shouldn’t be vaccinated against some of the worse diseases out there like polio are complete idiots and anyone out there (and it seems like there are quite a few in these comments) who thinks that vaccines have absolutely no negative affects on the body is a complete idiot.

    YES vaccines do help prevent some terrible diseases that would still be around today had people not been vaccinated in the past. And…

    YES heavy metals such as the mercury used to preserve the vaccine have an extremely negative affect especially on the developing neurons of a child.

    You can sit here and spew out garbage for one side or another but in reality neither side is right because this issues is FAR from black & white and pretending it is only serves to prolong this revolting exchange of nonsense and hate.

    And seriously, how is two guys throwing plastic balls at plastic bowling pins supposed to prove anything? this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen!

    It’s awesome how most of the people who use the term “Anti-Vaxxer(s)” seem to be just as delusional as the Anti-vaxxers themselves.
    Just despicable.

  94. ben

    let me state… I will not be swayed by what YOU say.

    all I know is that I dont trust the medical industry ONE BIT.

    the autism VS vaccines info is disturbing as hell, DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH, if penn and teller are your ‘source of facts and truths’ then you would expect them to be there for you if things arent as they claim……. but they wont be there for you. unless you pay them to be.

    penn and teller deny global warming too………

  95. ben

    REPOST

    what they don’t mention (and neither do the pro-vaccine people tell you) is that clean drinking water (one of the single most important factors in the eradication of disease), sterilization, hand washing, and general cleanliness also have a lot to do with getting rid of disease in the last century. i’m not saying that vaccines don’t help, and they have, but you can’t say that vaccines are the only thing that have helped the eradication of disease.

  96. ben

    what they don’t mention (and neither do the pro-vaccine people tell you) is that clean drinking water (one of the single most important factors in the eradication of disease), sterilization, hand washing, and general cleanliness also have a lot to do with getting rid of disease in the last century. i’m not saying that vaccines don’t help, and they have, but you can’t say that vaccines are the only thing that have helped the eradication of disease.

  97. Loyal

    My son got a 103 fever the day of his six month vaccine, and was never the same after that. He is Autistic now and is 9 years old. I don’t care what a comedian says, it happened that day. I am not anti-vaccine, my 2nd child got his vaccines and he is fine. Vaccines are a component of Autism for many cases, parents talk about the fever and that very day being the point of no return for normalcy in hundreds if not thousands of cases per year.

    It is one pro and con study after another all paid for by the CDC and RX companies. No honesty. If they would just fess up to the causes cures and treatments could happen faster for millions of families world wild. Big money companies have a history of big money cover ups in this country, and my child and millions more are caught in the crossfire of dishonest reporting, corrupt sciences, and ignorant stars taking sides in paid promos.

    There is no one drug that is safe for 100% of the population. Not even sugar pills are safe for 100% of the population as some folks have allergies to sugar. To say they have drugs full of things like mercury and more and it is safe for 100% of all babies is bullsh%t and every med school pharmacist or Dr. knows it. Penicillin can same some, while that save drug can kill others. Why is there no common explanation for these vaccines as well? Because they don’t want to admit they do harm and in some rare cases even kill children.

    I saw it folks. It is what happens for many families all across America and more. My child is Autistic, and he changed the day of his 6 month vaccines, no question about it at all for our friends and family. Seeing is believing and now we live it every day, so Penn & Teller can take sides all they want, but they should stick to comedy and not science.

  98. Aaron

    Actually, vaccines do cause health problems, if rarely. While the social benefits are such that every kid should be vaccinated, it is so profitable to sell vaccines that compensating those hurt by them should be treated as a cost of doing business.

  99. AHS

    “And if by any chance their child is infected with a disease they should be prosecuted for neglect and / or reckless endangerment. And if any other child who came into contact with their child also suffered, then they should face charges of assault / manslaughter”

    Does this make any sense? Non-vaccinated child coming in contact with another child should face charges? If vaccines worked in preventing the possibility of said disease-they would have to both be non-vaccinated. Correct?
    This is why I do not understand the finger pointing of parent who would like a choice in the matter. I see polio mentioned again, and again. I do not think too many are 100% against vaccines.

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