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A Little Bit of Rationality

I recently participated in a discussion on an anti-vaccination web site. You may not be aware of the anti-vaccination movement (AVM) so let me give you a brief summary here. They are a group which is actually fairly substantial which rejects the need for vaccination. They claim one or both of these points: vaccines don’t work, and vaccines have major side effects and cause disease. Often these people also have a lot of other unscientific beliefs, such as germ theory denial, climate change denial, and belief in spiritual and alternative healing.

Like many of these topics there is a certain amount of evidence which supports the view. There are negative side effects of vaccines, there has been some research indicating a link with disease, and some studies indicate some vaccines aren’t as effective as initially thought. But vaccine deniers twist and exaggerate the evidence and ignore the fact that vaccines in general are an essential medical intervention.

Perhaps the most common belief of the AVM is that vaccines cause autism. At one point this was claimed to be because of an organomercury preservative called thimerosal in the vaccine but when it was revealed that it had been removed (probably unnecessarily) from a lot of them the AVM switched to the claim that the problem was the vaccine itself.

So they seem to be happy enough to accept studies which highlight problems with vaccines but ignore the vast majority of research which shows vaccines work. This is rather disingenuous because if you think it’s OK to use scientific studies to support your belief you should also take notice of the vastly greater number which refute it.

But, like most denial groups, the AVM wants to pick the evidence which supports their predetermined belief while ignoring the rest. We see exactly the same phenomenon in other science denial groups such as global warming deniers, creationists, and homeopaths.

Clearly their beliefs aren’t based on science and logic so I thought I should try an alternative approach. If the facts weren’t their main motivator why not try a more emotional approach instead?

So the approach I took was to ask the same question in several forms: “are you claiming that almost every medical professional is either so corrupt that they don’t care about, or so incompetent that they haven’t noticed, the alleged dangers of vaccines?” and “how do you explain the fact that the majority of intelligent, well-meaning medical professionals reject your ideas?”

It is true, the majority of doctors support the use of vaccination (at least 90% depending on the exact question and other survey methodology). Is it really possible that these highly trained professionals use vaccines constantly and yet haven’t noticed the terrible side effects they allegedly cause, or the alleged lack of efficacy? Surely that would have become obvious to them very quickly.

And if the negative effects of vaccines are so bad and the doctors have noticed them is it likely that the majority of doctors (many of whom dedicated their lives to medicine out of a wish to help people as much as have a respected profession) (over 90% of survey respondents respect them) choose to either ignore the problems or are tempted by gifts and payments from drug companies that they just go ahead with vaccination anyway?

When you look at it this way the AVM must have an extremely poor opinion of the medical profession. Doctors are either so incompetent that they haven’t noticed the problems which are obvious to the AVM (most of whom aren’t medically trained) or they are so immoral that they inflict harm on (mainly) children just so that they can maintain the rewards they enjoy from the big drug companies?

How likely is this really? Think about it. I know plenty of medical professionals and I don’t think any of them are either incompetent or evil. The whole idea is just ridiculous.

Maybe you can support a conspiracy (and this is a conspiracy despite the AVM’s claims to the contrary) amongst people who tend to be rather more power-seeking and concerned with their own advancement like politicians or business leaders (even then I doubt most of the conspiracies they are allegedly involved in) but surely attributing these motives to doctors is going too far.

When I brought up these topics in the discussion forum I got no answer. The question was just conveniently ignored. I really don’t think these people think medical professionals are as bad as they would have to be for the conspiracy to be true.

Many people ask me why I waste time debating with “crazies” like these. While it’s true that it is extremely rare for one of my opponents to admit they are wrong all I hope for is that they might have just a little bit of doubt in the future, and that other people watching the debate might see that my side is both well reasoned and fact-based.

All I can hope is that maybe, just maybe, I will help add a little bit of rationality to an area where there is very little now.

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