Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

A Few Anti-Vaccine Archetypes

Steven Novella recently published What is an Antivaxer? over at the Science-Based Medicine blog. It is a useful overview of different classic types of anti-vaccine advocates. He admits up front that it is really a continuum, but offers a couple of typical cases.

I will discuss them in turn and add my personal interpretation and evaluate how likely it is to persuade the individuals in these categories that they are mistaken. To emphasize again, these are stereotypical categories and all individuals should be treated as individuals.

1. The Misinformed Parent

This is the person who has heard anecdotes from their friends and started to believe, with no good evidence, in the general harmfulness of vaccines. Novella explains:

The first sub-category is not truly anti-vaccine, but can be made to feel as if they are being lumped in with extremists – and that is well-meaning parents who are simply misinformed or confused.

He goes on to point out that scientific skeptics are not critical of this group, as they are merely the unfortunate victims of anti-vaccine propaganda. Maybe they have heard that vaccines contain mercury, but not gotten the full story:

However, mercury was removed from the routine childhood vaccine schedule in the US by 2002. Tiny doses of mercury (in thimerosal) is still present in some, but not all, flu vaccines. You can get all the vaccines you need without any mercury (except for insignificant trace amounts). I should also mention that the doses of mercury in vaccines prior to 2002 was tiny, that it is in the form of ethylmercury, which is much less toxic than methylmercury (the form that is more likely to be encountered in the environment), and that the evidence does not show any link between mercury in vaccines and any adverse outcome.

I think that these group should be treated with kindness because they may be the easiest archetype to persuade of the effectiveness and safety of vaccines. Not quite an unbiased fence-sitter, but basically as close to one as you get when it comes to anti-vaxers.

2. The Mercury Militant

If one is heavily invested in the idea that mercury that is suppose to be found in vaccines (which really isn’t; see above) is causing pretty much most or all of modern day diseases, one may be placed in the mercury militant archetype. Novella suggests that:

Some in the antivaxer camp are part of what has been called for years the “mercury militia.” They are convinced that mercury toxicity is responsible for a long list of human ills, and they jumped on the anti-vaccine bandwagon because of the mercury (thimerosal) issue.

I doubt that it is possible to reason with these individuals. The only thing one can do is to point out that mercury is not regularly used in vaccines anymore and have not been for a decade or so, that you ingest more mercury from food and that the ethylmercury found in vaccines were not associated with any diseases.

3. The “Alternative” Medicine Supporter

The third archetype that Novella describes is the proponent of so called complementary and alternative medicine. These may be homeopaths, chiropractors or whatever, but what they have in common is that they generally view “natural” as “good” (thereby performing the fallacies known as appeal to nature and naturalistic fallacy) and

[...] generally do not take a science-based approach to health care, and may endorse one or more specific unscientific, mystical, or spiritual approaches. They often oppose vaccines simply because vaccines are in the science-based camp, and conveniently they have their own alternatives to sell you.

These are also pretty much hard to convince, probably because they have spent so much time and resources on their belief, that they are likely to irrationally escalate no matter how high the cost becomes.

4. The Religious Fanatic

These are the ones who have problems with vaccines and indeed modern medicine due to their irrational religious beliefs. To be sure, not all religious individuals or even all religious fanatics are against science-based medicine or even vaccines in itself, but some are, and they are doing so precisely because of their religious interpretations and beliefs.

A third category in the antivaxer camp are those who have a specific ideology that opposes the use of medical interventions in general, or specific interventions that include vaccines (such as Christian Scientists). In this case the anti-vaccine stance is a literal religious belief. They are often happy, however, to endorse the propaganda of the previous groups in order to bolster and justify the antivaccine position they take for primarily religious reasons.

As most religious beliefs are passed down via childhood indoctrination from parents to offspring, it is unlikely that these individuals will be convinced. If you had the belief that you would go to hell if you take a medical product and survive whereas you would be eternally rewarded for choosing not to make use of modern medicine and die, there is probably nothing that can convince you that you are wrong. The afterlife may carry an infinite moral weight for these individuals.

5. The Environmental Extremist

The religious fanatic is typically republican, and so individuals in this category are generally the big government liberal environmentalist fanatics that hate corporations in general and large pharmaceutical companies specifically. Novella expands that:

In this world view corporations are evil until proven otherwise, and environmental toxins are a massive cause of human disease and suffering. They see vaccines as one more environmental toxin [...] and readily accept that there are no limits to the malfeasance of large corporations in pursuit of profits.

He mentions specifically Robert Kennedy Jr. as a prime example of this category. To be sure, large corporations are sometimes unethical, but this position fully embraces conspiratorial fear mongering and such nonsense.

I would personally like to add a sixth category not discussed by Novella, namely the anti-statist.

6. The Anti-Statist

These are the ones who responds with the knee-jerk reaction that all government programs are intrinsically evil because they are based on the initiation of force or the threat of it. They mistrust the government to such a degree that they reject any product or program that the government has laid it hands on. Sometimes, but by no means always, conspiracy theories about the New World Order or the Bilderberg group accompany this archetype. Any attempt to persuade this group must be carefully constructed if it will stand any chance.

That concludes this brief overview and I want to again emphasize that these are discrete categories, but there are overlaps and probably individuals who do not fit clearly into any of the categories.

What do you think? Are there more obvious archetypes? Do you have any examples of individuals who fit into these categories?

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