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.
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.
Medical officials are saying that there have been 37 cases of pertussis — whooping cough — reported in my hometown of Boulder so far this year.
We’re not even 100 days into 2012 yet. [Note: Washington State is in the midst of an actual epidemic of pertussis.]
How serious is this? 30 of those Boulder cases are in children under the age of 18… and it almost took the life of six week old Natalie Schultz. The local news reported on this:
[You may need to refresh this page to see the video.]
This outbreak might shock you, especially considering Boulder is one of the most educated cities in the United States. But in fact, I’ve been wondering if and when something like this might happen here. Denial of the benefits of vaccination is strong in educated areas, like Boulder or Marin county, California — being educated doesn’t mean you get things right, and in fact can make people believe in their own knowledge even more strongly. They go online and find antivax literature which magnifies their own beliefs.
Also, these tend to be more left-leaning areas, and the antivax movement does better there. The result? A little baby, not even two months old, is recovering from a nearly-fatal event that was totally preventable if enough people were vaccinated. Herd immunity would have prevented this whole thing. Natalie is too young to get a pertussis vaccine herself, so babies like her rely on adults — us — to be immunized against these diseases.
Adults should have a pertussis booster every ten years. I got my TDaP booster a couple of years ago. Just two months earlier, unbeknownst to me at the time, a little girl in Belgium named Lore Darch died from pertussis at the age of 83 days. Her father, Danny, wrote a diary for her as a memorial. Read it if you can. I did, and my heart aches so hard it’s a physical pain.
If you haven’t had your booster, you should talk to your board-certified doctor and see if you need one as well.
As Danica, Natalie’s mother put it:
"I almost lost my daughter at almost six weeks old… that could have been prevented if everyone was vaccinated."
She’s right. Antivaxxers are wrong. DON’T believe them about vaccine ingredients. DON’T believe them when they say they just want to educate people. DON’T believe them when they say vaccines cause autism. DON’T believe them when they say vaccines don’t work.
Vaccinations save lives. It’s that simple. Go talk to your doctor. NOW.
My thanks to The Vaccine Times on Twitter for alerting me to this.
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.
Just some quick notes, to
fill my quota give you some interesting reading:
1) Scientific American has a great article online about why it’s important to vaccinate, and how to talk to parents about it. [via George Valenzuela]
2) Speaking of which, the Autism Science Foundation — a non-profit that supports real research into autism, instead of trying to link it to vaccines despite all the evidence — was chosen as the number 1 startup charity in the "Disabilities" category by Philanthropedia/Guidestar. Congrats to them! [via Dawn Crawford]
3) The Discovery Institute isn’t completely honest? Unpossible!
4) Bill Nye helps create a sundial at Cornell University that glows when the Sun reaches its daily peak in the sky. [via Beth Quittman (my agent!)]
5) Frying pans that look like planets. Seriously. Very cool.
I know I just wrote about vaccine-preventable diseases on the rise once again, but even in the past couple of days there’s more news:
1) Houston is seeing the first case of measles in six years. The victim? An 11-month-old baby. Let’s hope she has a full and swift recovery, and no one else falls ill.
2) In that post linked above I talked about a school in Virginia that had to close down due to a big pertussis outbreak. Well, in Canada, they’re telling kids who are unvaccinated they can’t come to school; at least, not until they can show their inoculations are up-to-date. I have mixed feelings about forcing kids to get vaccinated, but in the end we simply cannot have schools be breeding grounds for diseases which are trivially easy to prevent. I read about this story on Fark, and the comments there are interesting, to say the least.
3) Seth Mnookin, who wrote "The Panic Virus" an exposé of the antivax movement, has posted his thoughts on these recent news stories. As usual, I find his comments to be well-reasoned and thoughtful.
Jessica Hagy has a terrific website called Indexed, where she uses simple, hand-drawn charts and Venn diagrams to make some pithy point in a funny way. She’s tackles all kinds of topics, and recently, to my heart’s delight, made a very simple point about vaccines:
Yup. Hard to be any more succinct than that.
Two bits of anti-medicine news, both from the United States northwest, and both dealing with difficult situations:
1) In Oregon, lawmakers are making it harder for people to use religion as an excuse to avoid medical treatment. The Followers of Christ, a fringe Christian group, advocates faith healing and not standard medicine, and as a result several children in that group have died in recent years. Because of this, a bill has been introduced into the Oregon state legislature to remove religious belief as a defense against homicide. If convicted, a parent whose child has died because they used faith healing instead of real medicine will be charged with homicide and have a mandatory sentence.
Stories like this always leave me conflicted. As a parent myself I always want the best possible medical treatment for my child, and I don’t want other groups interfering with that decision. However, the State has a right to protect the best interests of that child in case the parent cannot. Decades worth of evidence has shown that faith healing does not work, and in many cases the children in the Followers of Christ church had easily treatable illnesses and needn’t have died.
In the end, the right thing to do is save that sick child. If the parent cannot, then the greater society has the responsibility to do that.
This opens a can of worms, I know. Read More
The long-running comic strip Doonesbury does a lot of political humor of course, so it was no surprise he went after J. McCarthy today. After all, McCarthy used an environment of fear to terrify people into behaving contrary to their own best interests, ramping up an imaginary problem into a national concern, and putting thousands upon thousands of lives at risk of being destroyed.
No no no. Not Joseph. Jenny.
Tip o’ the syringe to the eight gazillion people who sent me that link, including my brother Sid.