There’s an old phrase among critical thinkers: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts*. The idea is that these are two different things: opinions are matters of taste or subjective conclusions, while facts stand outside that, independent of what you think or how you may be biased.
You can have an opinion that Quisp cereal is, to you, the best breakfast food of all time. But you can’t have the opinion that evolution isn’t real. That latter is not an opinion; it’s objectively wrong. You can have the opinion that the evidence for evolution doesn’t satisfy you, or that evolution feels wrong to you. But disbelieving evolution is not an opinion.
The same can be said for many other topics of critical thinking.
Deakin University Philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes makes just this case in a well-written piece called No, You’re Not Entitled to Your Opinion. For his basic example of this he uses the modern antivaccination movement, specifically Meryl Dorey and the Orwellain-named Australian Vaccination Network, or AVN.
Dorey’s name is familiar to regular readers: she spews antivax nonsense at nearly relativistic velocities, able to say more provably wrong and blatantly dangerous things than any given antiscience advocate after eight cups of coffee (just how dangerous the antivax movement is has been written about ably by my friend Seth Mnookin in Parade magazine). She never comes within a glancing blow of reality, and has been shown to her face that whatshe says is wrong, but stubbornly refuses to back down. She claims vaccines are connected to autism, that vaccines contain dangerous levels of toxins, that vaccines hurt human immune systems. None of these things is true. Reasonable Hank, who is outspoken about Dorey, has an exhaustive list of the awful things she’s said and done.
But some media pay attention to her, and in Australia the rate of pertussis is skyrocketing. Babies have died from this illness – not that Dorey actually believes that. Despite this, some media let Dorey rant on with her medical health conspiracy theories, citing "balance" when doing their stories. This is, simply, crap. Talking to doctors and researchers with years of experience in public health, and then Dorey (who has zero qualifications to discuss this topic) gives her de facto equal footing with reality. It would be like having astronauts interviewed about the space station, then talking to a UFO hunter.
Specifically, the article by Stokes I linked above takes the station WIN-TV to task for interviewing Dorey, and lays out just why this was a boneheaded thing to do (the ABC program Media Watch did an outstanding job destroying WIN-TV and Dorey, too). His bottom line: sure, you get to have an opinion, but don’t confuse it with fact, and don’t think you have a right to state your opinion in the media.
Predictably, and with predictable results, Dorey herself has jumped into the fray on the comments to the article. She has an uncanny ability to completely miss the point of what’s being said, and as usual is tone-deaf to what’s being said. It’s fascinating, in its own way.
I don’t think Dorey will ever change. I’ll note too that there are groups out there looking for the real causes of autism; the Autism Science Foundation is one. They even have a page up showing no connection between autism and vaccines. It’s wonderful and refreshing, and we should praise them for it. I have, like here and here. They’re good folks.
And remember another stock phrase in the critical thinking community: Keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out.
Image credit: Shutterstock (jimmi)
* The phrase is generally attributed to NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
My friend Dr. Rachael Dunlop is a tireless promoter of science and fighter of antivaccination propaganda. I somehow missed this when she wrote it last November, but she put together a fantastic article tearing apart a whole passel of antivax lies: "9 vaccination myths busted. With Science". It’s basically one-stop shopping for the truth about vaccines.
We need people talking about the need for vaccines more than ever right now. Measles cases have nearly doubled over last year in the UK. My hometown of Boulder is suffering through an outbreak of pertussis. California is on its way to having serious epidemics due to lower vaccination rates. In North Carolina just a few days ago, a two month old infant died from pertussis.
Let me repeat that: babies die because of diseases that can be prevented by a simple vaccination. Factually-bereft antivaxxers – cough cough Meryl Dorey cough – claim that no one dies from these diseases any more. They are wrong.
Antivaccination beliefs are bad science, pure and simple. Vaccines don’t cause autism. They don’t have toxins in them that can hurt you in the doses given. They don’t overtax the immune system. Read Rachie’s article to get the truth.
What vaccines do is save millions, hundreds of millions, of lives. They protect us from diseases that used to ravage entire populations. And they save babies’ lives.
We need to keep up our herd immunity if we are to keep ourselves healthy, and that includes adults. Talk to your board-certified doctor and see if you need a booster. Please.
I love this. Just love it. Short, simple, and to the point.
This was a billboard designed by Every Child By Two, a vaccination advocacy group I like a lot and strongly support (in fact, if you buy a Zen Pencils print of my Science Fare speech half the profits go to ECBT). While people like Meryl Dorey and Judy Wilyman vilely attack parents of babies who have died from vaccine-preventable diseases, groups like ECBT are trying valiantly to save babies’ lives.
Go talk to your board certified doctor and find out if you need to be vaccinated, and if you need your TDAP booster. Help save lives.
I do a roughly monthly segment with astronomer Seth Shostak on Big Picture Science, a radio show/podcast done by The SETI Institute. This month, Seth and I talked about the American Airlines dustup when they were planning to run an interview with reality-impaired antivaxxer Meryl Dorey. This story is a great victory for reality, and I’ve already written about the back story.
Never forget: this antivax issue is more than important: it is literally life and death. Because of lowering vaccine rates, pertussis outbreaks are so prevalent health officials in the state of Washington have declared it to be an epidemic. The governor has had to dip into emergency funds to the tune of $90,000 to finance an information campaign to get the word out.
But the money is secondary to the idea that babies and people with immune deficiencies are at risk of dying from a disease that is essentially totally preventable if everyone got their vaccinations and boosters.
I cannot state that any more simply. The antivax crowd says vaccines cause autism, vaccines cause neurological problems, vaccines hurt your immune system. None of that is true. The real danger is when people believe the antivax propaganda. Infants too young to be vaccinated themselves rely on herd immunity — if enough people are vaccinated the disease has no place to live. And when we as a community don’t vaccinate, people get sick, and some people — including those infants, usually just a few weeks old — die.
Talk to your board-certified doctor, and if they say it’s OK, get vaccinated. You may save more than one life doing so.
Reality recently scored a major win when American Airlines agreed not to run an interview with notorious antivaxxer Meryl Dorey. An American living in Australia, Dorey runs the Orwellian-named Australian Vaccine Network, where she dispenses horrifically bad and outright false information about vaccines. Read the link above to see details about her shenanigans.
After AA decided not to run the interview, Dorey pulled a lot of tired and clearly silly claims out of her playbook, saying it’s denying her free speech — which it obviously isn’t, since this isn’t a free speech issue! — and that we’re all part of a global cabal funded by Big Pharma blah blah blah. I’ve yet to see a check from Big Pharma, so her making this claim is at best paranoid and at worst a lie. You can read more about her nonsensical claims in an ABC article about this.
As usual, I have a very, very hard time feeling any sympathy for Dorey, especially when measles is roaring back into the population. Measles is easy to prevent with a simple vaccination, but due in large part to the antivax effort (and I include religious exemptions in that group) it’s still out there and infecting more and more people.
Some folks are fighting back, though. While I was in Utah last weekend I saw some great billboards promoting vaccines. Shane Larson, an astronomer at Utah State University where I spoke, grabbed a great photo of one:
That shot shows the billboard in context and might be hard to see with everything else in the picture. Here’s a zoom on the billboard itself:
It says, “Vaccine preventable diseases are just a plane ride away" and shows a child standing next to an open suitcase. The line refers to the fact that Europe and other countries are seeing a resurgence in measles and other diseases due in part to the antivax movement, and if you’re not vaccinated, you can bring those diseases back to the US. Measles was stopped natively in this country in 2000 due to high vaccination rates, but international travel has brought it back. That’s not speculation; we know this has happened.
The billboard links to the wonderful website Vaccinate Your Baby, which has great advice — science-based, reality-based, fact-based, and truthful — about vaccinations.
You can help save lives.
Tip o’ the needle to Liz Ditz for several of the links in this article.
Good news: I just received a tweet from the American Airlines Twitter feed:
Yay! They have decided to not air the audio version of the antivax interview. That’s excellent, and I thank American Airlines for that.
However, as far as I can tell, the interview is still slated to run in their in-flight magazine. I will hopefully have more news about that soon as well.
Update: When I asked about the printed version, I got this reply back very quickly:
Again, I thank American Airlines for considering this issue and making the right decision. I also want to sincerely thank everyone who wrote and tweeted about this.
Remember: we have the power to make sure good, accurate science gets told, and bad, inaccurate misinformation does not spread. Never rest, never tire, and never forget that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
[UPDATE: American Airlines has agreed not to run the interview! That includes both the audio and print versions.]
[Note: This post contains numerous links to articles showing antivax claims are misleading at best, and pose a huge health risk. I strongly urge you to read those links before leaving a comment.]
In May 2011, an
unvaccinated infant infected with measles was brought on board American Airlines flight 3965. Measles is a highly contagious, dangerous, and potentially fatal disease, and because of this public health emergency officials had to track down 100 passengers and quarantine quite a few of them.
This event was not American Airlines’ fault. However, it’s hard to see what they learned from it, since they plan on printing and airing an interview with a notorious antivaxxer who makes provably false and incredibly dangerous claims about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases.
The antivaxxer in question is Meryl Dorey, an American living in Australia who has made it her life’s work to spread misinformation about vaccines. Her ability to distort the truth — to phrase it kindly — is nothing short of herculean. As I wrote about her in 2010:
She has said no one dies from pertussis anymore… when little four-week-old Dana McCaffery died of that very disease, because herd immunity in her area of Australia was so low. Dorey is an HIV denier. She thinks doctors lie and poison babies. […] It goes on and on.
So why on Earth would American Airlines choose to run an interview with her in their in-flight magazine and air that interview on the in-flight TVs?
The interview is her usual passel of untruths about vaccinations: she tries to tie them to worsening diseases and autism — neither of which is remotely true — and then relies on the discredited research of a man the British Medical Journal outright called a "fraud".
Bizarrely, the interviewer for the American Airlines piece apparently didn’t even contact an actual doctor to get professional information on this topic. At the very least (the very least) the ability to show Meryl Dorey’s claims to be completely wrong is a Google search away, a trivial amount of work for an interviewer to do. Her horrid behavior towards Toni and David McCaffery — little Dana’s parents, who had to suffer through Dorey’s attacks while still grieving over their daughter — is also out there for all to see.
I don’t think they should. That’s why I signed a petition asking American Airlines to not run the interview. I added a note to it, saying in part:
"I will not fly AA ever again if they run this interview, and I will make very sure the thousands of people who read my blog know about my decision."
And I have one more thing to note. Read More
And yet, antivaccination groups exist.
Let me be very, very clear: they are wrong. Vaccines save lives. Vaccines save millions of lives. And not just directly, like they did by wiping out smallpox, a scourge that killed hundreds of millions of people. But also, through herd immunity, vaccines save infants too young to be vaccinated, the elderly with weak immune systems, and people whose immune systems are compromised due to chemotherapy, genetic issues, or because they are taking immunosuppressants for other illnesses (like arthritis).
Vaccines don’t cause autism. Vaccines don’t contain dangerous levels of mercury. Vaccines don’t contain fetal tissue. Each of these – and many, many more — is misinformation spread by antivaxxers, statements that are easily proven wrong (like, in order, here, here, and here). But many antivaxxers continue to use them.
What does that say about their willingness to tell the truth?
Yesterday, in Australia, one of the most vocal antivaxxers alive, Meryl Dorey of the grossly misnamed Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), spoke at the Woodford Folk Festival about her beliefs. However, she didn’t get quite the chance she had hoped for. Once the news got out that she was invited to the festival, the group Stop AVN went into action. A protest cry went up, and the venue was changed from her speaking solo, to her participating in a panel with a series of experts — actual, real experts — on vaccines. As I write this, I have a window open on Twitter, and I’m watching the tweets using the hashtag #StopAVN flow by. It’s a thing of beauty. Dorey’s arguments are being destroyed, 140 characters at a time.
The bottom line, repeated over and over again: Vaccinations save lives. That statement of fact is so simple, so powerful, that Stop AVN put it on a banner and had it flown behind a plane at the festival.
Wonderful! My congratulations to my friends Down Under for this impressive campaign.
But we here in America cannot rest easy. We have antivaxxers here; loud, wealthy, ones, who won’t hesitate to spread the same kind of misinformation; dangerous misinformation that poses a serious health threat.
The National Vaccine Information Center is one such group. They have a long history of antivax rhetoric, remarkable only in its breathtaking inaccuracy, and their ability to get it into the mainstream. And they’re at it again: they’ve put an ad on ABC’s digital 5000 square foot screen in Times Square in New York City, a place that will be packed with people celebrating the new year. To top it all off, Jenny McCarthy — who dispenses incredibly dangerous and incredibly wrong advice about vaccinations and other health safety issues — is slated to be a guest on ABC’s New Year’s Rocking Eve with Dick Clark… and she has stated she plans to promote her dangerous nonsense on the show.
Skepchick has an excellent post about this. My friend Jamie Bernstein has started a petition on change.org to get the ad taken down. I signed it.
Again, let me be clear: these antivax groups pose a public health threat. If you don’t believe me, then read this account by someone who knows.
And if you wonder why I feel so strongly about this, then I suggest you steel yourself — seriously — and read this account written by the parents of Dana McCaffery, who lost her life to pertussis when she was four weeks old. She was too young to be vaccinated. Because vaccine rates were so low in her area, pertussis had a place to grow. She was infected, and she died.
You want to know why I feel so strongly? This is why. She is why.
Talk to your board-certified doctor about vaccines. Find out what you might need — being an adult doesn’t mean you’re exempt from childhood vaccines; you may need a booster — and if your doctor approves, then do what needs to be done.
The solution against the antivaxxers is to make sure their misinformation is countered by facts. It’s one of life’s great ironies that vaccines have helped these people live as long as they have to spread their nonsense about vaccines. We can speak up to stop them… and at the same time get vaccinated to make sure that they — that everyone — gets a chance to be wrong for a long, long time.
As I write this, I just got back from hearing author Seth Mnookin give a talk here in Boulder about his book, The Panic Virus (the talk was sponsored by my friends at the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition — I love those folks). It’s an excellent book about the rise and power of the antivax movement. I recommend reading it. That is, if your stomach doesn’t get upset over the events it describes. Mine did.
The talk was quite good, with him going over the basics of the people who fight against vaccinations. The most interesting part was during the Q&A, when a woman sitting right behind me starting soapboxing about how vaccines weren’t tested enough, and there weren’t enough studies showing their safety, and so on. It was clear after she said just a few words that she was from some antivax organization, and I found out afterward she was from Safeminds — a group that tried to get really awful ads placed in movie theaters but which was fought tooth and nail by Skepchicks.
The woman’s tactics were pretty simple: sow doubt, and use bad logic to do so. First she misrepresented what Seth wrote in his book (saying he was one-sided, always supporting vaccines, when in fact he has a lot to say about the failings of how they are tested and discussed by some doctors to parents). Then she tried to imply a false dichotomy: if they aren’t tested well, they cannot be safe, and we shouldn’t use them. That’s obviously wrong, and also ignores the vast amount of good vaccines do. When was the last time you heard of someone contracting smallpox? Oh right: 1977.
Anyway, about Seth’s book, my friend and fellow science advocate Dr. Rachael Dunlop pointed me toward the new Australian edition of the book, which has a new preface as well. I’m happy to see that Mnookin directly takes on the situation in Australia, documenting the behavior of antivaxxer Meryl Dorey and relaying the story of the McCafferys, who lost their four week old daughter Dana due to pertussis and low vaccination rates. You can read the preface at that link above.
Again, I do recommend this book. Dorey’s organization may be on its way out, but the antivaxxers are still out there –obviously, as evidenced by the woman from Safeminds at the talk — and still spreading mistrust and fear. The Panic Virus will give you a lot of useful information about how this came to be, and what we can do about it.
[P.S. Before the usual brigade of antivaxxers swarm the comments below and accuse me of being a Big Pharma shill, please read this essay by skeptic Rebecca Watson about the pharmaceutical industry. I agree with her.]
Last week, I wrote about how the martyr of the modern antivax movement, Andrew Wakefield, is being openly accused of fraud by journalist Brian Deer and the British Medical Journal — with tons of evidence, I’ll add. Seeing as how Wakefield has been promoting the outright dangerous and potentially deadly antireality antivax idea for years, this news was welcomed by the skeptic community.
But that was only Part 1. The BMJ has just published Part 2: how Wakefield stood to make not just millions, not just tens of millions, but actually hundreds of millions of dollars by promoting the false link between the MMR vaccine with autism and Crohn’s disease.
He was paid quite a large sum of money by a lawyer, Richard Barr, to find that connection. We’ve known this for a long time, in fact; Deer wrote about this a while ago (as well as Wakefield’s vast conflict of interest involving developing his own version of the vaccine to replace the one being used). But this new article is important because it goes into a lot of detail — and, like his first article, is meticulously referenced and footnoted — providing an ironclad link between the money and Wakefield’s actions.
As Orac points out, antivaxxers love to accuse those of us who defend reality of being in the pay of Big Pharma (or whatever Big Nebulous Organization they can tenuously link us to), and many of them are outspoken about following the money. Will they do that here, and realize that by their own logic they have to abandon and even repudiate and censure Wakefield?
So with Jenny McCarthy still spouting dangerous nonsense, Meryl Dorey saying stuff so obviously wrong that a radio interviewer shut her down, and so many other antivax organizations willing to expose babies and the population at large to potentially fatal but preventable diseases, what can you do?
Please, please, please: if you know anyone at risk of being affected by antivax propaganda, send them to Immunize for Good. There is a wealth of factual information there, especially in their Fact or Fiction section.
That simple act can save lives. It’s that simple.