Tag Archives: Anti-vaccination

Fall of an antivaxxer

The Doctor Who Fooled the World
Andrew Wakefield’s War on Vaccines
By Brian Deer
Scribe, A$35.00

(An edited version of these book reviews was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2020, Vol 40 No 3)

The Doctor Who Fooled the World - Brian Deer

This is an important book. Whether it’s really about “the scientific deception of our time”, as the blurb on the back cover describes it, or the result of “the most extensive investigation by a reporter into an aspect of medicine ever undertaken”, as the author describes it, history will decide. But it has to be said that the subject of the book has caused immeasurable damage to the lives of many thousands, and possibly millions, of people.

Therefore we deemed it appropriate to run two reviews – the first by your editor, and the second by noted anti-anti-vaccination campaigner Peter Bowditch, who adds a personal perspective.

Brian Deer is an experienced journalist with a list of exposes of medical fraud and mispractice in his CV. But Wakefield is probably his magnum opus. He has spent 16 years following the saga of Andrew Wakefield, “the doctor without patients”. He wrote a number of revelatory articles on Wakefield’s progress for the Sunday Times, the publication that supported him throughout, both financially and legally, as well as many TV, radio and public appearances, and a significant expose in the British Medical Journal.

Readers of this publication will be aware of Andrew Wakefield’s role in the anti-vaccination movement – the search for autistic kids who could be linked to the measles/MMR vaccine, publication in The Lancet, Wakefield’s promotion of the ‘link’ which lead to a major decline in MMR vaccinations across the world and consequent increases in cases of measles and the damage that has caused.

Deer came to this story during the anti-vaccination campaign, with Wakefield a high-profile figure riding a wave of publicity and, frankly, adulation. From 2002 until the writing of this book in 2019, Deer has followed the vicissitudes of his subject, and played a key role in exposing a range of misconduct and duplicity that eventually led to the longest-ever inquiry by the UK General Medical Council (GMC). In January 2010, the GMC judged Wakefield to be “dishonest”, “unethical” and “callous”, and on 24 May 2010, Wakefield was struck off the UK medical register. Responding to Deer’s findings, The Lancet partially retracted Wakefield’s research in February 2004 and fully retracted it in February 2010 following the GMC findings. In 2011, Deer published his findings in the BMJ with an endorsement by the editors.

Wakefield, of course, became a tragic hero of the anti-vaccination movement, a martyr to the cause, now living in the US and still promoting the supposed autism link, despite the masses of evidence against him and his claims.

Needless to say, Wakefield does not come out of it looking rosy. In fact, Deer portrays Wakefield as an opportunist, a mediocre researcher who used his personal charisma as a tool to promote himself, and who cottoned on to a ‘good thing’ and milked it – and continues to milk it – for everything it’s got.

But Deer makes clear that, despite the book’s title, there were many others contributing to the failed theory and whose involvement made them just as guilty as Wakefield; it is just that Wakefield had the charisma and drive – if not the medical knowledge and skill – to push the case to a broader public. These others include scientific and medical associates, adulatory followers, politicians, parents, learned journals, lawyers (importantly) and, of course, a complicit media. Some of these have paid the price of their association with Wakefield.

But Deer’s coverage of the media is a bit surprising. This reviewer’s background is journalism, and seeing how the media promoted and boosted Wakefield’s scare tactics was always disappointing, to say the least! There would not have been a vaccine scare without some media putting the case in hyperbolic terms. Their role in the growth of the anti-vaccination movement is considerable and intrinsic to spreading misinformation and paranoia.

Therefore, it is interesting that Deer doesn’t spend more time on the media’s involvement. Certainly, he makes reference to a number of specific and highly partisan journalists, such as Lorraine Fraser of the Mail on Sunday, Jeremy Paxman and Susan Watts on the BBC’s Newsnight, and Matt Lauer of the NBC’s Today program, but his coverage of the media is as much about their attacks on him as it is their support for Wakefield, and in some cases, once Deer’s work had been publicised, trying to gazump him with a scoop.

With that in mind, Deer’s book covers a lot of his investigation in addition to what he is investigating. This adds an element akin to a detective thriller, which takes the book along at a very readable pace. Overall, media coverage notwithstanding, this is an excellent book. The depth and detail are spot on, from well-explained scientific and medical protocols and procedures to well-told human interest elements (the parents’ responses ranging from suspect support to desperate self-blame).

It is highly likely that this is the definitive version of the Wakefield and Co saga. Now for one on the evolution of the anti-vaccination movement to complement it.

PS: The story is bookended by a couple of Australians. In the beginning was John Walker-Smith, a gastroenterologist who was instrumental in testing the children who would eventually become the basis of The Lancet paper (and who only just missed out on suffering the same professional fate as Wakefield), and at the tail end we have Elle ‘the Body’ Macpherson, super-model and consort of the superstar Wakefield. One wonders whether everyone got their just desserts.

– Reviewed by Tim Mendham

In 1996 I was commissioned to write a book about the Internet. It was to explain to people who didn’t know anything about it or the technology behind it or what it could be good and bad for. There was some hysteria about the possibility of a flood of pornography filling our lounge rooms so I actually had to research porn (it was boring!) to answer the inevitable questions in interviews. I also looked for other forms of bad information because it was obvious even then that there would be dubious information coming down the tubes. One of the bad things I found was a group of websites spreading fear about vaccinations. I commented at the time that none of the pornography I was forced to watch was as offensive as some of these sites.

In 1999 I started paying more attention to the anti-vaccination sites and it wasn’t long before I was sneeringly told that a paper by a Dr Andrew Wakefield had been published in The Lancet (the world’s second-most prestigious and influential medical journal) which proved that the MMR vaccine caused autism. As I had experience of people citing unlikely research results in the hope that nobody would check, I read the paper for myself (I had access to the medical library at Westmead Hospital) and it proved no such thing – it only suggested there might be a link. There were several red flags on the paper, one of which was that the editors of The Lancet felt the need to include an editorial statement implying the clichés “further research is needed” and “the science is not settled”.

The biggest red flag for me came from something I had been taught about research methodology at university – the sample of subjects looked too good to be true. It seemed highly unlikely that the parents of the children had independently and randomly sought out a doctor (who didn’t see patients!) at a small and relatively unknown London hospital. I mentioned my concerns in a conference presentation in 2001. The most charitable view was that there had been some cherry-picking going on mixed with some confirmation bias. The peer review process can’t always detect outright fraud, so this was a case of “the benefit of the doubt”.

But fraud it certainly was.

Journalist Brian Deer had been investigating suspicious matters around the pharmaceutical industry for some years, and in 2003 he was approached by an editor at the Sunday Times and asked to apply his investigative skills to the Wakefield story, which by then had started to have a serious effect on vaccination levels and public health. There was enough information and doubt from within the medical profession itself to suggest that the public didn’t know all the things it should have known, and it wasn’t long before the facts started coming out – that Wakefield was paid a large amount of money to find what he wanted to find, that he had applied for a patent on a measles vaccine that would have made him very wealthy if it replaced the current vaccine, that the subjects of the study had not been randomly chosen but had been supplied by a lawyer, Roger Barr, who intended taking legal action against vaccine manufacturers, that Barr had used a loophole in the regulations to stripmine the Legal Aid system for tens of millions of pounds (shared with Wakefield), that Wakefield and Barr both had close associations with prominent anti-vaccination campaigners, that the laboratory doing the tests for measles DNA had less credibility than a school science project … the list went on.

In 2010 Wakefield’s registration as a medical practitioner was cancelled and The Lancet retracted the 1998 paper. It took too many years, but we thought that at last it might all be over. We were wrong.

Brian Deer (described as “a lying dog of a journalist” by a leading anti-vaccination campaigner) has now written a complete history of the Wakefield saga. The book goes back some years before the notorious 1998 paper to reveal the involvement of lawyer Barr and vociferous anti-vaccination organisations, through the almost unbelievable litany of lies, corruption and fraud that surrounded Wakefield and the coordinated attempts to use his fraudulent “research” to damage the public’s perception of the safety and efficacy of vaccines, to his elevation to hero status in the anti-vaccination movement and his current incarnation as the director and producer of anti-vaccination films liked the execrable “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe”. (The use of the word “cover-up” in the title caused irony meters across the world to shatter, given the way that Wakefield et al had covered up his deceit. Also, when the film first came out in 2016 someone commented about the propaganda: “Leni Riefenstahl would have baulked at making something this dishonest”.)

I could summarise the book into something like those old Reader’s Digest condensed novels, but I wouldn’t know what to leave out and this review would be about 300 pages long. The book is an essential read for anyone who has followed Wakefield over the years (and even I, who have followed him very closely, found many new things to wonder and grimace at). It is essential reading for anyone who thinks that scientific and medical research can’t be corrupted by greed and self-interest or to support an agenda. And it is essential reading for anyone who thinks for a nanosecond that the anti-vaccination movement is based on any philosophy that includes honesty, ethics or morality. Strangely, the book also reinforces the claim by anti-vaccinators that all medical research is corrupt and driven by money, although they will make an exception in this case.

You need this book. Buy it! Highly recommended.

– Reviewed by Peter Bowditch

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Why anti-vaxxers get it so wrong

By Tim Harding

The inability to accurately appraise one’s own knowledge is a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, first identified from social psychology experiments conducted in 1999. Dunning-Kruger effects occur when individuals’ lack of knowledge about a particular subject leads them to inaccurately gauge their expertise on that subject. Ignorance of one’s own ignorance can lead people who lack knowledge on a subject to think of themselves as more expert than those who are comparatively better informed.

A recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Science and Medicine (and summarised in The Conversation) demonstrated that at least some anti-vaccination views are based on the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  The study found that 71 per cent of those who strongly endorse misinformation about the link between vaccines and autism feel that they know as much or more than medical experts about the causes of autism, compared to only 28 per cent who most strongly reject that misinformation.

The researchers found that nearly a third, or 30 percent, of people who think that they know more than medical experts about the causes of autism strongly support giving parents the latitude to not vaccinate their children. By contrast, 16 percent of those who do not think that they know more than medical professionals felt the same way.

The study also found that people who think they know more than medical experts are more likely to trust information about vaccines from non-expert sources, such as celebrities. These individuals are also more likely to support a strong role for non-experts in the process of making policies about vaccines and vaccination.

Whilst these recent research findings may not come as a surprise to seasoned skeptics, we now have  empirical evidence to explain why at least some anti-vaccination views are so irrational.

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Denialism

Denialism is a person’s choice to deny certain particular facts.  It is an essentially irrational belief where the person substitutes his or her personal opinion for established knowledge. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of denialism is a failure to recognise the distinction between opinions and facts.

Denialism should not be confused with modern scientific skepticism, which is the challenging of beliefs that are unscientific, irrational or based on insufficient evidence.  Instead of denying facts, modern skeptics test claims by analysing whether they are supported by adequate empirical evidence. Denialism is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.

The philosophical skepticism of the Academic Skeptics and Pyrrhonists in Classical Greece (which was quite different to modern skepticism) consisted of doubting whether there can be any knowledge or facts at all, rather than denying particular facts.

Science denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favour of radical and controversial opinions of an unscientific nature. For example, the term climate change denialist is applied to people who argue against the scientific consensus that the global warming of planet Earth is a real and occurring event primarily caused by human activity. 

The term evolution denialist or ‘creationist’ is applied to people who argue against the fact that life on Earth has evolved from earlier forms, instead of having been created by a supernatural being in its current form.

Other instances include Holocaust denialism, AIDS denialism, vaccination denialism, and Flat-Earthism. The various forms of denialism present the common feature of the person rejecting overwhelming evidence, often with attempts to deny the existence of a scientific consensus or alternatively to allege a conspiracy theory to fake or conceal the evidence. Denialism is commonly one of the foundations of quackery and other varieties of woo.

The motivations and causes of denialism include irrationality, religion and self-interest (political, economic or financial), beliefs in conspiracy theories or even defence mechanisms meant to protect the psyche of the denialist against mentally disturbing facts and ideas.

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Science deniers reject authority and facts

Here is an excellent article by philosopher  Dr. Patrick Stokes in The Age, 18 December 2015. It begins:

“Many people who choose to ignore accepted scientific conclusions are making emotional rather than rational decisions.”

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/people-pick-and-choose-over-scientific-discoveries-at-their-peril-20151216-glpj3z.html#ixzz3uctzHc6a

I have written an essay on a related topic.

 

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In the vaccine debate, science is just getting its boots on

The Conversation

Ian Musgrave

There is an old saying that a lie will be heard around the world while truth is still getting its boots on. This was brought home to me during a radio interview I did on Tuesday night in the wake of the Federal Government’s decision to remove the conscientious objection exemption for vaccination. I was astonished that in 2015, some of these pieces of misinformation are still out there, and still believed, if the passionate radio callers (and several posts in my Facebook feed) are any indication.

Here is a sample of some of the misinformation and misunderstandings I encountered on the radio show and on the internet in the past 24 hours (paraphrased slightly).

“Why should we inject our kids with polyethylene glycol/brake fluid?” We don’t. There is no ethylene glycol in our vaccines. We do have harmless traces of a completely different chemical, 2-phenoxyethanol, which is an antibacterial helping keep the vaccines sterile.

“Why are we injecting our kids with formaldehyde?” Formaldehyde is used to inactivate viruses in some vaccines. After clean-up, minute traces are left, but the amount you would get from a vaccine injection is much less that is circulating naturally in your blood. Yes, your body makes formaldehyde. If you are seriously worried about formaldehyde, don’t eat apples or pears, which contain much more formaldehyde than vaccines. For details see here and here.

“Why are we injecting our kids with mercury?” We aren’t, there has been no mercury in kids vaccines in Australia since 2000. Especially those in the vaccination schedule. Note that the amount of mercury in the Thiomersal preservative is less than what you would get from eating a can of tuna and no one seems to be advocating a fish free diet for kids.

“Why are we still giving kids small pox vaccine when small pox is extinct?” We are not. And I am astonished that anyone would think that we did, but this (paraphrased) was an actual question.

Measles vaccination conquers measles. Source: Epidemiol Rev (2002) 24 (2): 125-136. doi: 10.1093/epirev/mxf002

“But we don’t need vaccines, these diseases were going before vaccines”. Nope, see that graph? That’s the incidence of measles in the UK before and after the vaccine, note the strong correlation between the fall in measles and the vaccine coverage of the population. Similar graphs are seen for the US and Canada (see here for the most dishonest anti-vaccination graph ever).

Australia stopped collecting data on measles incidence so there is a big gap in our data, but the incidence of the disease was higher before the vaccine than after. Same goes for pertussis (we had just had an epidemic when the vaccine was introduced), diptheria and Heamophilus Influenza B (and if you want to claim it’s all hygiene and diet, the HIB vaccine was introduced in the ‘90’s where nutrition and hygiene was at modern standards). See the Australian Academy of Sciences “science of vaccination” for graphs and details.

“There have been no deaths from measles since 2000”, this is actually a false statement about US data. 2000 was the year that endemic measles was declared extinct in the US. In Australia, we haven’t has a measles death since 1995. Unsurprisingly, since vaccination has been so effective.

However, in the US the has been 8 deaths during the epidemics caused by unvaccinated people catching measles overseas and bringing it back to the US, where it spreads mostly amongst the unvaccinated. In the US, it is usually linked to the heinous meme “no measles deaths since 2000, hundreds of measles deaths from the measles vaccine”. This pernicious statement is untrue, there have been no deaths due to the measles vaccine.

“What about that study that showed vaccines cause autism”. No, just no. Andrew Wakefield’s study, since retracted for unethical conduct, was so sloppy that it was meaningless, and may even be fraudulent. This unethical study has caused thousand of people to forgo measles vaccines, with kids getting caught in epidemics that should never have happened.

In the debate about our response to under vaccination, it is assumed that people refusing vaccines are making rational choices, weighing up the pros and cons of vaccination versus side effects with the best available data.

The controversial Leunig cartoon that shows a mother fleeing a barrage of syringes inadvertently sums up what it is really about.

Fear

As the talking points I’ve encountered show, people are coming up with objections that are either wildly distorted or flat out untrue but they all have one thing in common. They all directly stoke the fear that by vaccinating our children we will harm them. A rational choice is difficult to make in this environment.

That a lie can travel around the world before truth gets its boots on is never truer than in this debate. This recent article contains talking points not covered above that are either not true or wildly distorted (Fluarix does not contain foetal bovine serum, the virus for the vaccine is grown in eggs; vaccinations are not intravenous and so on). But I’ve already spent three days and over 1,000 words to cover the standard false or misleading claims and I have to stop at some point.

All the items I talked about have been dealt with long ago. But if you do an internet search for “Australian vaccine information” three of the top five hits are vaccine denialist sites. In this age of Dr. Google sites that play on fears will trump the more sober (and boring) official sites.

My approach to vaccine refusers (the people whose decisions have been influenced by misinformation and fear, as opposed to hard core vaccine denialists) is to provide them with better and more accessible information.

This may not work as well as it might be naively imagined, a study on the best way to provide accurate vaccine information to parents who had previously failed to vaccinate their children found that although the parents understanding of vaccine safety improved, they were no more likely to have their children vaccinated. Some parents became even less likely to vaccinate their children.

Even in the light of this somewhat depressing knowledge, we should not stop trying to get truth out there. One of the difficulties in communicating vaccine facts is that these may leave a gap in peoples beliefs (accounting for their reluctance to accept the facts). An approach I’ve mentioned before is replacing the gap with an alternative narrative. Whichever approach we use, we need to keep the facts front and centre.

Remember, this is not just abstract knowledge, or “cute science facts”, but information that will keep real kids out of hospital and in some case save lives.

Truth (and science) may take time to get its boots on, but those boots were made for walking, and the journey has just begun.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Immunisation, the media and the amplification of irrational anxiety

The Conversation

Brian McNair, Queensland University of Technology

The government’s ‘no jab, no pay’ policy, which will restrict childcare benefits for those parents who refuse to have their kids immunised, may seem harsh to some. Most parents, however, will see the wisdom of a policy which puts the collective welfare of all children above the conscientious objections of a few parents.

The rate of non-immunisation of children has risen from 1% to 2% in a decade, noted Tony Abbott at a Sunday morning press conference announcing the new policy. 40,000 children are not immunised in Australia, he added, and rates of some very avoidable but potentially lethal children’s diseases such as measles and whooping cough have gone up.

That 2% put at risk the other 98%, and using the tax and benefits system to send that message is tough, but justified.

In the United States and the UK, too, immunisation rates have fallen over recent years, and diseases which once plagued our children, and were then all but wiped out by immunisation programs, have returned in significant numbers. So what has been going on? Why are so many parents refusing to take advantage of a preventive medical technology which has saved literally millions of children’s lives across the world?

One answer, if not the only one – some have deep religious objections, for example – is the news media, and their role in what we might call the amplification of irrational anxiety.

A small but significant minority of parents have come to believe, in all sincerity (and no-one doubts that they have the best interests of their children at heart) that immunisation is dangerous, and certainly riskier than the risks associated with not having their kids vaccinated.

Even though there is no solid evidence to support that belief, and plenty of evidence to support the benefits of immunisation, some parents are so anxious that they will put their own children, and more importantly, other people’s children, at heightened risk of exposure to a preventable disease which could cause disability and even death.

So where have these anxieties come from?

Back in 2004, an English doctor by the name of Andrew Wakefield published research claiming to demonstrate a link between the MMR triple vaccine (to immunise children against mumps, measles and rubella) and the onset of autism. As followers of the story will know, Wakefield’s work was subsequently discredited, and he himself struck off the medical register in the UK for his unethical research methods.

Before that happened, however, the alleged risks of MMR became a major news story in the UK and all over the world. At that time, a decade ago, the global incidence of autism had risen dramatically. Between 1996 and 2007 in the United States, for example, the reported incidence of autism rose from 0.8 per 1,000 to 5.2 – an increase of some 600%.

Similar increases were recorded in many other countries. In Australia, the first survey of the prevalence of autism did not take place until 2006 so historical data are lacking. In 2014, however, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found a 79% increase in diagnoses between 2009 and 2012. A NSW parliament report of 2013 noted that:

… the growing number of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an issue of concern both in Australia and overseas.

This does not mean that the actual prevalence of autism has risen, though. Rather, the public awareness of autism has risen, through movies such as Rain Man and the explosion of media visibility around the condition seen since the 1990s. Documentaries were made about autistic ‘savants’, and families where parents struggled to cope with autistic children. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time became a global publishing phenomenon, and an entire sub-genre of ‘autism lit’ emerged.

Many people, children and adults, who might hitherto have been described as ‘different’ or ‘eccentric’, or even just ‘shy’, were labelled with Asperger’s Syndrome, or some other condition on the autistic spectrum.

Through a heightened media visibility, parents, medical professionals, teachers and others involved with children were sensitised to a condition which until recently was little known and poorly understood. In other words, autism has always existed, but only recently has it been recognised and given a name. As a result, its recorded incidence has risen dramatically, not because more children are acquiring autism from one cause or another, but because more of those born with it – and autism is often a genetic condition that runs in families and mainly affects males – are being identified.

This is a positive development, because autism is very real, and heightened public awareness has led to support services being put in place for people with autism where there had been none.

Notwithstanding this context, one cannot blame parents for becoming more anxious about the causes of autism, and many quite plausible, if never substantiated, theories have circulated. Wakefield’s research, when it was published in 2004, spoke directly to that anxiety, and his hypothesis – that autism was ‘caused’ by immunisation – seemed credible to many.

In the UK, where the scare was centred, and Wakefield’s work taken very seriously by most of the media, hundreds of thousands of parents withdrew their children from the MMR program. Then-prime minister Tony Blair was asked by journalists to reveal if his baby son Leo had been vaccinated or not. He refused to answer on privacy grounds, while making clear his own absolute confidence in the safety of the vaccine.

Despite such reassurances, and the widespread scepticism which greeted Wakefield’s research amongst his medical peers from the outset, the impact of the scare was very real. Rates of immunisation fell, while the incidence of measles and other preventable diseases began to rise. Ill-founded anxiety about the dangers of immunisation ended up having very real consequences on public health.

Years after Wakefield’s work had been discredited by his peers, his theories on MMR and autism have continued to influence parents all over the world. And where he has had influence, so the incidence of the diseases targeted by the MMR vaccine have risen.

In February this year, the Sunday Times reported on the anti-immunisation advocacy of US group Generation Rescue, who were reported to “seek inspiration” from Wakefield, who now lives and works in that country. The result of this campaign:

… say experts, has been to plunge America into the first national debate since the 1970s about the safety and necessity of vaccines — and led to the return of measles, a highly contagious childhood disease judged extinct by the US government’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 15 years ago.

In the US, vaccination rates had fallen by 3%, amid what the article called “a mounting sense of panic”. As in the UK a decade previously, erroneous health information spread through a variety of media channels had provoked a health crisis with strong political reverberations.

Politicians faced with anxious parents were encouraged to comment and pronounce on the vaccination ‘issue’, even when ignorant of the science. Republican contenders for the 2016 presidential race – Chris Christie and Rand Paul – both declared their approval of parental exemptions from MMR vaccination.

Rigorous research into media coverage of autism and its causes has not been done in Australia, and we cannot assume that all of those ‘conscientious objectors’ to immunisation are directly influenced by the Wakefield hypothesis. But his work, and the way it was reported a decade ago and since, undoubtedly contributed to a climate of fear around the risks of vaccination, irrational in so far as it lacks foundation in scientifically validated evidence.

The government is therefore right to take strong action against parents whose irrational fears knowingly put other children at risk. It is an example of firm government in the face of myth and unreason, and should be supported by all who care about the health of our kids.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Infections of the mind: why anti-vaxxers just ‘know’ they’re right

The Conversation

Thom Scott-Phillips, Durham University

Anti-vaccination beliefs can cause real, substantive harm, as shown by the recent outbreak of measles in the US. These developments are as shocking and distressing as their consequences are predictable. But if the consequences are so predictable, why do the beliefs persist?

It is not simply that anti-vaxxers don’t understand how vaccines work (some of them may not, but not all of them). Neither are anti-vaxxers simply resistant to all of modern medicine (I’m sure that many of them still take pain killers when they need to). So the matter is not as simple as plain stupidity. Some anti-vaxxers are not that stupid, and some stupid people are not anti-vaxxers. There is something more subtle going on.

Naïve theories

We all have what psychologists call “folk” theories, or “naïve” theories, of how the world works. You do not need to learn Newton’s laws to believe that an object will fall to the floor if there is nothing to support it. This is just something you “know” by virtue of being human. It is part of our naïve physics, and it gives us good predictions of what will happen to medium-sized objects on planet earth.

Naïve physics is not such a good guide outside of this environment. Academic physics, which deals with very large and very small objects, and with the universe beyond our own planet, often produces findings that are an affront to common sense.

A life force. Food by Shutterstock

As well as physics, we also have naïve theories about the natural world (naïve biology) and the social world (naïve psychology). An example of naïve biology is “vitalistic causality” – the intuitive belief that a vital power or life force, acquired from food and water, is what makes humans active, prevents them from being taken ill, and enables them to grow. Children have this belief from a very young age.

Naïve theories of all kinds tend to persist even in the face of contradictory arguments and evidence. Interestingly, they persist even in the minds of those who, at a more reflexive level of understanding, know them to be false.

In one study, adults were asked to determine, as quickly as possible, whether a statement was scientifically true or false. These statements were either scientifically true and naïvely true (“A moving bullet loses speed”), scientifically true but naïvely false (“A moving bullet loses height”), scientifically false but naïvely true (“A moving bullet loses force”), or scientifically false and naïvely false (“A moving bullet loses weight”).

Adults with a high degree of science education got the questions right, but were significantly slower to answer when the naïve theory contradicted their scientific understanding. Scientific understanding does not replace naïve theories, it just suppresses them.

Sticky ideas

As ideas spread through a population, some stick and become common, while others do not. The science of how and why ideas spread through populations is called cultural epidemiology. More and more results in this area are showing how naïve theories play a major role in making some ideas stickier than others. Just as we have a natural biological vulnerability to some bacteria and not others, we have a natural psychological vulnerability to some ideas and not others. Some beliefs, good and bad, are just plain infectious.

Here is an example. Bloodletting persisted in the West for centuries, even though it was more often than not harmful to the patient. A recent survey of the ethnographic data showed that bloodletting has been practiced in one form or another in many unrelated cultures, across the whole world.

Paraphernalia. (Source: Peter Merholz, CC BY-SA)

A follow-up experiment showed how stories that do not originally have any mention of bloodletting (for instance, about an accidental cut) can, when repeated over and over again, become stories about bloodletting, even among individuals with no cultural experience of bloodletting.

These results cannot be explained by bloodletting’s medical efficiency (since it is harmful), or by the perceived prestige of western physicians (since many of the populations surveyed had no exposure to them). Instead, the cultural success of bloodletting is due to the fact that it chimes with our naïve biology, and in particular with our intuitive ideas of vitalistic causality.

Bloodletting is a natural response to a naïve belief that the individual’s life force has been polluted in some way, and that this pollution must be removed. Anti-vaccination beliefs are a natural complement to this: vaccinations are a potential poison that must be kept from the body at all costs.

At an intuitive, naïve level we can all identify with these beliefs. That is why they can satirised in mainstream entertainment.

In Stanley Kubrick’s great comedy Dr. Strangelove, the American general Jack D. Ripper explains to Lionel Mandrake, a group captain in the Royal Air Force, that he only drinks “distilled water, or rainwater, and only pure grain alcohol”, because, he believes, tap water is being deliberately infected by Communists to “sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids”. The joke works because Ripper’s paranoia is directed at something we all recognise: the need to keep our bodies free from harmful, alien substances. Anti-vaxxers think they are doing the same.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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