Over the past while I have had the pleasure of ‘debating’ you in regards to our respective positions on vaccination. I use the term ‘debating’ lightly because it is difficult in 140 characters to have a meaningful exchange of ideas about a controversial or contested subject. Ideas and the perspectives of individuals are inherently subtle and nuanced; some things cannot be conveyed in 140 characters.
I thought your arguments were significantly flawed – they represented opinion as objective evidence, relied on unsourced memes and cherry-picked abstracts of peer-reviewed articles to convey distorted characterisations of vaccination. Perhaps your opinions are more sophisticated than they came across? Debating 140 characters at a time is hard, and so I will give you the benefit of the doubt.
I know what you are thinking – why have I written you this letter?
The short answer is that I want to help you. Seriously. This letter will not proselytise, it will not try to drag you kicking and screaming into the light. It will not try to bombard you with facts and evidence to convince you to change your mind. If, at the end of this letter, you have changed your mind, then I have not achieved my desired effect.
The long answer is that you need to learn how to argue properly.
Put simply, the argument you attempted to bombard me with was utter garbage
You created artificial and illogical binary questions to elicit a desirable answer. Your argument was littered with contradictions, which were only exaggerated by falling onto #bigpharma conspiracy theories when your original point was driven to a logical conclusion that exposed the flaws in your position. Your ‘research’ is nothing more than a clear demonstration of confirmation bias – you have taken a position and subsequently gone looking for evidence to confirm it, instead of looking at the evidence before making a conclusion.
The fundamental difference between you and I is that I am happy to be proven wrong, and I don’t mean proven wrong in some abstract way impossible in practicality. I want to be right, I strive for knowledge, but my pursuit of knowledge does not prejudice my conclusion because I prioritise the truth over my subjective feelings of what I would like to be right. It’s true – I would be ecstatic to see vaccination proven to have no side effects, but what I would prefer is for humans to be safe and live healthy lives. If a reputable, peer-reviewed medical journal published conclusive evidence tomorrow that vaccines were unsafe to the point that the social benefits of vaccination were outweighed by its detriments, I would be anti-vaccination quicker than you could say ‘the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine causes autism’. The question I posit to you is – could you say the same?
What standard of proof would you require to be convinced that vaccines are safe?
What is incontrovertible is that scientific consensus overwhelmingly supports vaccination. Select scientists may disagree, and that’s ok – scientific methodology inherently promotes scepticism; in fact, it thrives on scepticism. The issue is how you go about disproving vaccination. On one hand, you can engage with scientific method, form groups to fund serious research and formulate conclusions which you subject to the rigours of peer review. On the other hand, you can mimic what a lot of creationists do and insist evolution is nothing more than a theory whilst shouting a lot in outrage at the prospect of being an evolutionary descendant of apes.
One group are playing the game, the other is throwing cups from the sideline.
What I saw in our Twitter debate was nothing more than an adolescent tantrum masquerading as considered argument. Posting memes trying to monger fear about the presence of DNA or chemicals in vaccines was nothing more than a pathetic attempt to scare people by talking about things neither of us have the scientific training to understand.
The problem you face is that if you want to convert people to your thinking, you need to get off the sidelines and start presenting your argument in a way that can 1) actually disprove the standing scientific consensus, and 2) persuade people that don’t already support you.
Despite your insistence to the contrary, the vast majority of us are not uneducated, we just disagree with you. The way to establish that we have been ignorant to the dangers of vaccination is to actually over turn the current consensus. I am open to being proven wrong. But until such time that you decide to actually get in the game and engage with the methodology of the majority, you and your cohort will always be fringe dwelling lunatics.
That may have sounded insulting, but it is how a lot of people perceive anti-vaccination people, and it is entirely because your methodology of argument and standard of proof are completely compromised by your insistence on the conclusion before the evidence. The internet is a phenomenal creation, but it is incredibly dangerous because it allows people to confirm their own perspective rather than develop a more holistic understanding of the issue to draw conclusions from. If you are not careful, the internet only gives you information that supports your current position – instead of challenging and evolving your knowledge by expanding and overcoming evidence to the contrary, you simply reinforce and strengthen your existing position. Intellectual stasis is nothing to be celebrated. If you believe so strongly that your position on vaccination is correct, you owe it to the world to deliver it in a way that actually connects with people.
Remember the principle – ‘A shepherd without a flock is just a man taking a walk’
If you believe so strongly in your arguments, lead us to the promised land. However, the way you are currently engaging with vaccination will never gain mainstream acceptance.
If you want to lead us to a new truth, get us to follow you.
So, with that in mind, how do anti-vaccination groups formulate a position that can actually convert educated people? I want to be convinced. I am to open to the idea that everything I have thought to be true about vaccination may be false. After all, we thought the Sun revolved around the Earth for thousands of years – no fact is incontestable, no truth is unquestionable by virtue of longevity. What follows is how to construct an argument that can actually convince your sceptics, rather than just further incite your supporters.
Conduct studies, subject them to rigorous peer-review
You are attempting to overturn centuries of scientific consensus that vaccination, broadly, is a safe and effective measure of public health. That is the prevailing theory, it is your prerogative to develop a veritable and arguable hypothesis that challenges the status quo. It is your prerogative to test your hypothesis in objective studies to establish their validity. It is your prerogative to use these results to challenge the prevailing scientific position of vaccination.
Science is inherently open to criticism and reflection. Scientific methodology is a continuing process of questioning; naturally introspective, it is a process more than adept at change. Produce evidence of an acceptable standard and prove your point. What we are seeing at the moment is not acceptable evidence. Rather, it is small scale studies underpinned by reviews of data of questionable quality, often being mischaracterised by dogmatic supporters looking to cling on to anything which reinforces the prejudices of their current position. Remember, evidence before conclusion.
If people come across as mean and dismissive of your approach to evidence, it is because the scientific method is one of the most fundamental cornerstones of Western thought. It is arguable that it was scientific method that drove the Renaissance, and fired the Industrial Revolution that followed it. People like Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Francis Bacon are not in the Pantheon of Western Thought solely because of their discoveries in science, but rather their contribution to the method of how we should think in science. I am not a scientist, I cannot explore complex concepts of virology and immunology, but I understand that the method must come before the conclusion. If you want credibility with mainstream educated people, then you need to adhere to the fundamental principles of thinking in our society.
You want a goal? Refute, using scientific methodology, this http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/48/4/456.full
Stop cherry picking studies, and read what you are posting before you post it.
Amongst the barrage of garbage that you threw at me, there were actually some peer-reviewed articles. Well, actually, they were links to abstracts of articles. Nevertheless, out of a sense of duty and respect for the fact that you posted something scientifically credible, I decided to find and read the actual articles (the link for one of them is here).
‘Cherry picking’ generally refers to the practice of choosing only the most beneficial aspects or items in a selection, and utterly ignoring the aspects or items which you don’t like. Transposed onto using peer-reviewed articles, it means you find the best articles for your cause and ignore anything inconvenient to your expected conclusion. However, you also cherry picked from the article itself. The article you linked me was a 2000 study referring to an outbreak of Aseptic Meningitis in Salvador, Brazil which did find a statistical correlation between mass immunisation and an increase in aseptic meningitis. What you ignored was three-fold – 1) the Urabe strain of Mumps used in the particular MMR vaccine is not used in Britain, Australia or the United States. Studies of a Urabe-free MMR vaccine in Finland found no correlation between MMR and higher incidences of aseptic meningitis 2) The authors concluded that in spite of the ‘outbreak’ (1 in 14000 doses), it was “necessary to maintain vaccination with very high coverage in Brazil”, and 3) it provides no statistical justification for getting rid of the MMR vaccination.
I get that you don’t like vaccination – that is ok, but refrain from misrepresenting your ‘evidence’ to reach conclusions diametrically opposite to that of the article you are quoting. I don’t know who you are used to trying to convince, but I can use a computer, and I can read – bullshitting me with deliberately misconstrued findings won’t further your case.
You did something similar with your ‘Vaccines contain cancer tumours’ argument. Ignoring for a moment the fact that you are trying to use the fear and uncertainty of ‘cancer’ to scare people with limited understanding of what is a very complex issue of medical science into the simple binary that ‘cancer is in vaccines -》cancer = bad -》vaccine = cancer’, let’s examine the link you posted as evidence. Now, as I readily admit, I have limited knowledge of science – but FDA discussion appears to me to be a discussion about the approval of using isolated tumorigenic (cells capable of forming tumours in an immunocompromised rat) to grow inactive viruses for use in vaccinations. To quote the FDA directly:
“Over the last 20 years, it has been recognized that cell lines derived from tumours may be the optimal and in some cases the only cell substrate that can be used to propagate certain vaccine viruses.”
Well put me in a dress and call me Shirley! How on Earth is that ‘containing cancer tumours’? Believe it or not, viruses require hosts to survive – would you rather us just keep a veritable menagerie of animals to use as live hosts? Further, even if they did contain cancer cells, where is the evidence, actual evidence, that vaccines containing cancer cells cause health problems? You are drawing conclusions in the absence of evidence, hoping that people will assume that bad in one instance means bad in another. It is intellectually dishonest. It is morally fraudulent.
For those of you reading and thinking “well, it doesn’t sound good – I don’t want to get injected with tumours”, animal manure is amongst the best fertilisers for vegetables in your garden – it doesn’t mean eating vegetables is automatically bad for you!
Use of false dichotomies
A recurrent theme in our debate was your use of false dichotomies to try and ensnare me in a logic trap. What are false dichotomies? In this instance, questions which falsely assume that there are only two possible answers by ignoring alternatives. To use an actual example, you said:
@ireland_jh support #vaccines are either uneducated to their vase dangers, OR they profit from them. Which are you Jon?
You created a false dichotomy here because you crafted a question and demand I select only from the two provided answers. But these two answers do not represent all the potential answers to the question. They are more than just overly simplistic and reductionist – they portray a fundamentally dishonest characterisation of available options. I could be both educated to their vast dangers and still profit from them – you cannot dismiss the possibility that I am merely immoral. Likewise, you cannot dismiss the possibility that I am educated as to what some people claim to be the dangers, and have chosen to ignore them whilst not profiting from the position at all (although, with credit to a friend, I have profited from vaccination through good health).
A false dichotomy does not further your argument, it puts you outside reason and logic. I’m sure your supporters were cheering that you ‘trapped’ me, but no neutral observer is impressed by a technique which is inherently designed to shut out reasoned rebuttal. Like I’ve said, if you want to convince adults, you need to argue and reason like one. False dichotomies are for children.
Stop talking in conspiracy theories
At various points, you fell back to the #bigpharma conspiracy theory that, in reality, we are all being brain washed by multi-national pharmaceutical companies into believing vaccinations are both necessary and safe. The line goes something along the lines that #bigpharma have bought off all of the research institutions through research grants and that meaningful scientific research is not being conducted into vaccinations. I have a couple of problems with this:
- You then rely on scientific evidence to promote your position (albeit by misrepresenting it). It is inherently contradictory and hypocritical to dismiss mainstream research as #bigpharma.
- You use it as a fall back when confronted by overwhelming evidence that your position is incorrect. Yet the articles you dismiss as being the products of this conspiracy are published in prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals run by universities with endowment funds that make their research grants look miniscule. Harvard literally has over $30 billion dollars in endowments. It is counterintuitive to believe that such an institution would jeopardise its reputation over a couple of million in private research grants. Be warier of less prestigious journals and research from smaller universities – they are the one’s more dependent on research grants
The problem with conspiracy theories is that, in reality, they are a short cut in logic which allow people to understand and comprehend a highly complex world in very simplistic terms. Think about it in terms of 9/11 – four planes are hijacked by terrorists and three of them are crashed into buildings. Why? Now, you could examine all of the complex geo-political origins of Islamic fundamentalism, the nature of asymmetric warfare and the ways in which globalisation have facilitated localised grievances into trans-continental use of violence to further political objectives. You could research how terrorism as a phenomenon is so difficult for modern state security apparatuses to guard against despite overwhelming superiority in conventional warfare. Learn all that and you are still left with needing to understand the ideological perspectives that drove the United States’ response to the attacks and subsequent intervention in the Middle East.
Alternatively, you could decide that it is all too hard, and a much simpler explanation is that government operatives blew up the twin towers and orchestrated the hijacking of the aircrafts to make it look like a terror attack. They did all this so they could invade the Middle East for oil (overlooking the inconvenient fact that Afghanistan is literally the most difficult country to conquer in human history).
The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are, to be frank, the product of lazy thinking. It is a way to short circuit between problem and conclusion, allowing the thinker to avoid putting in the effort required to actually understand a multifaceted and complicated issue. It’s a recurring pattern too – people who believe in one conspiracy theory have a much high likelihood of believing in others. Ask yourself – do you believe the government is using chemtrails to poison us? Do you believe 9/11 was more than the product of government incompetence and pissed off terrorists? Have you ever used ‘United Nations’ and ‘New World Order’ in the same sentence? You might actually just be psychologically attracted to conspiracy theories.
Even if you scientifically establish that vaccines are harmful, you must overcome the moral impetus for vaccination.
There seems to be an enormous focus on the fact that vaccines are harmful – that’s ok, it is certainly a necessary element in establishing that we should not be vaccinating our children. This narrow-minded focus on harm, however, overlooks the fact that it is not sufficient to establish that vaccines are merely harmful.
Life is inherently harmful. We spend a large proportion of our biological lives slowly degrading to an inevitable death. Morbid as that may sound, death is a fact of life. Everyday our life choices involve both harm and risk of harm. Drinking alcohol is not good for you. Walking is good for you, but even walking brings a higher risk of immediate harm than sitting on your couch at home. Over time, doing nothing but sitting on your couch will also be harmful for you. Welcome to the beautiful paradox that is existence.
If we accept that harm is a fact of life, then the real question about vaccines and the sufficiency of harm as an argument is whether or not the harm caused by vaccines outweighs the social benefits it purports to have. Put simply, are the risks avoided by vaccinating outweighed by the risks incurred in the vaccinating process? I will not go too deeply into the philosophical justification for vaccination, I have written extensively on it here. Suffice to say that your challenge in overturning vaccination is a question of both establishing harm and disproving social benefit.
And finally, stop using memes and capitals to support your argument.
We are all adults here. If you want your argument to be taken seriously by serious people, littering it with images filled with unsourced information about the dangers of vaccination, or ‘scary ingredients’ which neither of us understand, does not help your cause. It cheapens it. You are trying to make a scientific argument armed with something teenagers use to make fun of each other. The only people you are going convince using memes are people with no firm opinion, and if your movement is to gain credibility, those are not the people you need to be winning over.
Concluding, do not be afraid of the task ahead of you, my friend. Individuals throughout history have discredited and overturned much more established consensus than vaccination – Newton theorised gravity from nothing more than an apple falling from a tree. Copernicus overturned millennia of thought about geocentricism by theorising that the Earth revolves around the Sun. What they had in common was that they employed a methodology which allowed others to test, challenge and embrace their theories. Despite what you may think, I am of an open mind about vaccination – I totally support it until such a time that I am presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, on the provision that it is derived from scientific methodology.
I hope the criticisms contained in this letter are useful for you in this quest, and I wish you all the best.
 A. Makela, J.P. Nuorti, H. Peltola. “Neurologic disorders after measles–mumps–rubella vaccination” Pediatrics, 110 (2002), pp. 957–963
 United States Food and Drug Administration, ‘Cell Lines Derived from Human Tumors for Vaccine Manufacture’, FDA Briefing Document Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee Meeting September 19, 2012, p. 7.
 Wandowsky S, Gignac GE, Oberauer K (2015) Correction: The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0134773.
Goertzel, T.(1994). Belief in Conspiracy Theories. Political Psychology,15(4), 731–742.