The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Vaccines, Science, Anti-Science, and Critical Thinking

As often happens, today I came across an internet discussion on the evils of a particular piece of technology. In this case, the evil technology is the vaccine for the H1N1 virus. I have started looking for information on this, and have found very little that isn't big on hysteria or propaganda, so I can not at this time take a stand on this one particular vaccine. However, in the internet thread that I saw quickly turned into a series of posts in which it was clear that the participants had no real knowledge of the subject, but had simply heard scare stories that confirmed their existing worldview:

Corporations are bad.
Vaccines are made by corporations.
Therefore, vaccines are bad.

Nature is good.
Herbs, juices, vitamins, etc. come from nature.
Therefore these things are good.

Even if one were to concede that corporations are bad (and, believe me, I am well aware of the many problems associated with the fact that so much of the world's money is tied up in large multi-national corporations), it still doesn't follow that all things produced by them are inherently bad. Indeed, for the harm that they can do, no major corporation would have been able to rise unless they also offered some advantages.

Moreover, nature is not inherently good. Certainly, there is something to be said for eating simpler, less processed foods. Likewise, many medications, such as anti-biotics, are overused. However, there are plenty of things in nature that can kill you, ranging from naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide to all manner of uninhabitable environments. The truth is that humans are suited for a fairly narrow range of places within the vastness of nature, and the rest is hostile towards us.

Moreover, the various herbs, vitamins, supplements, etc. that are championed by most people inclined towards such things are themselves produced by for-profit companies with a definite financial stake in keeping and gaining customers. So, the profit motive that drives the major pharmaceutical companies also drives the major companies selling naturopathic goods (in some cases, they're even the same company).

In other words, it's not a case of good naturopaths vs. evil corporations. the naturopaths are just as capable of doing harm as the corporations are, and corporations can do some good despite their reputation. It's not black-and-white. The world is a much more complicated place than that.

I have written about vaccines and the anti-vaccine movement before and in general my views remain the same now. Of course, each new vaccine is essentially a new variation on an old procedure, and as such should be examined carefully for the potential side-effects that the new variation may bring. I do not currently know whether the H1N1 vaccine has unnecessary risks associated with it. The problem is that, as far as I can tell, the people who are going on about its dangers don't know either, they are simply repeating stories that they have heard which seem to jive with their pre-existing beliefs about the evils of pharmaceutical companies. That sensationalistic right-wing media outlets are blasting some of the same thing doesn't make these claims true, it simply demonstrates that they are good for ratings (as the fact that I keep seeing a FOx News clip about it in my email and on social networking sites demonstrates).

As a Time magazine article that I recently linked to summarizes it:

while the far right gets a lot of crap about not believing in science, the left isn't crazy about it either. Only instead of rejecting facts that conflict with the Bible, it ignores anything that conflicts with hippie myths about the perfection of nature. That's why my neighborhood is full of places you can go to detoxify with colonics, get healed with crystals and magnets and buy non--genetically engineered food.

It's worth noting that the anti-vaccine movement has gone from particular worries over one particular (and no longer used) vaccine preservative, and has now adopted the entire vague and empty naturopathic lingo of fear of never-specified toxins, appeals to the "superiority" of "natural cures" (nevermind that there is nothing natural about an herb that has been processed for consumption), and has increasingly hijacked the publics well-warranted skepticism of the powerful (major corporations, governments, etc.) to create fears over what is generally one of the safest medical procedures around (there is, of course, some variation among specific vaccines). In other words, as the claims have been increasingly proven to be false, they have become increasingly nebulous and hard to nail down, much less test - the truest signs of psuedo science.

The fact is that the anti-vaccine movement (which itself was jump-started by Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who produced a long-since debunked paper in which he used an overly-small data set to falsely conclude that vaccines cause autism while never disclosing that he had two financial stakes in reaching that finding) is based on hysteria, not reason. However, these folks have managed to capitalize on the confirmation bias and the creation of the confirmation bias's cousin the echo chamber in order to create a spreading worldview in which vaccines are to be viewed with suspicion at bets and hostility at worst. Even those who are not necessarily opposed to the childhood vaccines are being caught up on the wave of hysteria as an increasingly sensationalistic media takes advantage of the wealth of anti-science lunacy supplied by the anti-vaccination crowd to whip fear into the masses who are only too ready to buy the magazine or tune in to hear what they should be afraid of.

And there is the problem. Contrary to what many of these people claim, many of the diseases that we vaccinate against are painful at best and in many cases deadly. They can be prevented by stimulating our bodies immune systems via a vaccine*. Some newer vaccines may require further testing, and some may have risks that outweigh the benefitsm but you won't know that if you simply accept what those who are pushing psuedo-science and lunacy in the name of a false notion of nature or out of a sense of anger towards corporations. You will only know that if you push past that, push past anecdotes, and look at actual data, actual statistical analysis something that none of these people ever seem to be willing to do. The question of whether or not a vaccine is safe is an empirical question that can be answered with empirical data.

Which brings us back to the H1N1 vaccine. Is it safe? Well, to find out, you'll need to look for real and responsible research. Nutjobs on television or the internet screaming about the evils of vaccines will do nothing but scare you and/or confirm your existing biases - they are no more likely to be unbiased and honest than an advertisement**. Try asking a scientist, instead.

* It's worth noting that many of the nuttier of these people advocate not having children vaccinated, but instead exposing them to the diseases to stimulate their immune system. You know, stimulate it kind of like a vaccine does without putting your child, or the children with whom your child comes into contact, at risk. It's the same fucking immune system working in the same fucking way, folks!

** Some people will say "well, if there's so much pro-vaccination talk out there, then some anti-vaccination talk will balance it out!" this is only true when the anti-vaccination talk is based on reality, something that is excedingly rare. If there is a real case against vaccines, then yes, that is important. So far, though, we just keep seeing the same nonsense put forth without any reason or fact behind it.

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