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Scare tactics and lies don't help; reasonable concern does

A correspondent sent me a link to this video on YouTube. It’s a pretty good summary of what anti-vaccine activists are saying, so in case you’re wondering, you should go and watch it. But you might want to read on, first.

Child receiving polio vaccine, 1958

I have to admit that I could only watch about half of the video because it follows the template for all scare tactics these days: First of all, get people who seem to have great titles but no stated credentials in the subject matter; second, raise questions about something that is not even being done yet just to scare people; and third, cite  evidence (“two papers”) that showed adverse effects without any information about who put together that evidence and where it was published.

When I graduated with a master’s in creative writing, there wasn’t much work out there for me. So I ended up doing what most writers do…I got a job teaching Freshman English. My second job was at Cal State Hayward (now CSU East Bay), where one of the classes I taught required me to teach all the basics of argumentation. (Yeah, it’s true, my family did say, “Wow, you are SO qualified to teach people how to argue!”)

Ever since teaching that class, I have noticed fallacies (false arguments) everywhere. Fallacies are the sneaky ways people have had for arguing since the beginning of time. You might recognize some of them: “post hoc ergo propter hoc” (this thing happened after that thing, therefore that thing caused this thing); “ad hominem” (if the information comes from this person it must be wrong because of some attribute of this person), etc.

This video is rampant with errors in argumentation. It is a perfect example of what is being done to mislead people. Instead of considering the real problems and the real way to solve them, they just want to shock people so that they won’t use their logical brains to question whether the information they are being given is reasonable.

Here are just a few problems with the video: They didn’t ask anyone who actually works in the fields of epidemiology or vaccine research to respond to the statements being made. They didn’t back up any of the most extreme statements with large-scale, well-run studies (probably because there aren’t any that back up their statements). They pull out old scary stories that have, in fact, been studied on a large scale. The “vaccines cause autism” argument, for example. Scientists who understand epidemiology are just plain done with that theory. It doesn’t pan out. Rates of vaccination in this country are going down, yet autism continues to rise. Huge amounts of money have been poured into enormous studies, and they still can’t prove a correlation.

Then there’s the incredible body of facts they ignore. Just to test it, let’s just say that some of the problems they say are caused by vaccines are true. Let’s agree that some cases of autism, some chronic illesses, and some other problems they mention are directly caused by vaccine. Then look at this country without vaccines: is the result better or worse than with no vaccines?

It’s easy to go back to pre-WWII and look at statistics. Child mortality from whooping cough, measles, mumps. Lifelong injury or death from polio. The agonizing pain of the longterm effects of all those diseases. And on and on. So the question is, are things better now, or without vaccines?

Even if I accepted that all the things they say vaccines cause are true, I can’t agree with their assertion that things have gotten worse. Even if there are those many side-effects of vaccines, the end result is that we live healthier, longer lives now.

This is the analogy that has been in my head lately: I find out (as I would pretty often just by reading the paper) that a child was hit by a car walking to school. I don’t want my child to be killed. So of course the logical response to that is not to send my child to school, right?

That’s the logic that anti-vaccine people are using. They seem to think that it’s better to let children die than to immunize and do serious, rigorous studies of the effects. If the preservatives in vaccines are causing illness, then yes, they need to be changed. But all the noise they’re making hides the real questions that need to be sorted out. They’re scaring people instead of asking them to make reasonable demands that our government do serious work on making vaccines safer. And the noise these people are making drowns out the considerably quieter and more reasonable voices of those who have very real concerns about making vaccines safe.

I just wrote an article about what the Department of Health and Human Services is doing to look at this question in relation to the swine flu vaccine that is presently being distributed. This is the right approach. Scaring people, telling them lies, and trotting out conspiracy theories (a fellow video on that YouTube page had a great one!) won’t help anyone, and it won’t make us stronger or smarter.

Posted in Culture, Health.

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