Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Anti-vaccination

How SVT Debatt Botched the Vaccine Issue

SVT Debatt

SVT Debatt is a Swedish studio debating program on public television that discuss a couple of current topics each week. Issues range from immigration and feminism to soccer violence and diet trends. Unfortunately, science experts are far and few between and extremists are often given considerably more time to spew their nonsense. This is because the format of the show consists of short back-and-forth exchanges between invited guests and other audience members that are often interrupted by the show host (who serve as a moderator), thus promoting quack one-liners while penalizing careful scientific arguments.

This became abundantly clear during the show aired on 9th April that dealt with childhood vaccines. They had invited several anti-vaccine activists that were given ample time to spread their pseudoscientific misinformation, such as promoting measles parties to intentionally give children measles and the absurd claim that vaccines are supposedly just placebo treatments.

This is a point-by-point refutation of the pseudoscientific claims delivered by anti-vaccine parents on the show.

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When Creationism and Anti-Vaccine Activism Mesh

Creationism and anti-vaccine activism

One of the more frightening conceptual aspects of pseudoscience is known as the crank magnetism effect. It occurs when someone, who promotes one kind of pseudoscience, becomes more likely of promoting other kinds of crankery. Someone who promotes HIV/AIDS denialism may also promote alternative medicine, someone who promotes conspiracy theories about 9/11 might also believe that chemtrails are real, someone who are against vaccines might advocate for conspiracy theories about condoms and so on. This might occur because of similar core beliefs, such as the alleged severe deceitfulness of the government or because of extreme religious beliefs, or perhaps because of the similar themes and content of many kinds of pseudoscience.

Cornelius Hunter, an intelligent design creationist associated with the Center for Science and Culture (previously named the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture) at the Discovery Institute, is a good illustration of the concept of crank magnetism. In two recent blog post, he promoted a number of classic anti-vaccine talking points, but these were not completely unrelated to his intelligent design creationist activism. Instead, he appears to see both of the conflicts as part of a larger culture war between mainstream science (that he calls “scientism”) and various religious and anti-scientific groups and individuals.

Evolution is a strongly evidence-based explanation for the origin of biological diversity

It is extremely common for creationists of various stripes to mischaracterize evolution as something it is not. Evolution is a strongly evidence-based explanatory framework for the origin of biological diversity. It is not about the origin of life (abiogenesis), it is not a worldview, it does not assume philosophical naturalism with respects to the origin of life.

The opposition to science by the forces of pseudoscientific is a fact

Hunter, in an effort to tarnish the combat against pseudoscience, intentionally conflate the current opposition to science by pseudoscientific groups with the historical conflict thesis. The historical conflict thesis, advanced by Draper and White, was the notion that there has been a continuous war between science and religion throughout European history. This turns out to be an inaccurate view of history as the authors cherry-picked and exaggerated their examples. To be true, there were groups of religious individuals who opposed various scientific models and medical advances, but it was rarely the official position of large religious organizations. However, the falsity of the historical conflict thesis does not disprove the true claim that here are currently many conflicts between science and various religious and non-religious groups today.

Denialism is not “thoughtful disagreement”

Hunter writes that:

If you disagree with “science” (as if there is such a monolithic thing), you are not a concerned or thoughtful citizen, you are a denier. In this “we versus them” world, the negative connotation is obvious.

Promoting conspiracy theories about scientists or the scientific community is not the same as being “thoughtful”. Spreading dangerous myths about how vaccines are harming millions of people or that genetically modified foods cause cancer is not the same as being “thoughtful”. Cherry-picking 1998 as a starting point in surface temperature graphs because it had a strong El Niño event in an effort to make it look like there has been no global warming during the past 17 years is not being “thoughtful”. There is a world of difference between being concerned and thoughtful and being a denialist. People are more than welcome to question scientific models and claims. In fact, this is encouraged since science grows by the rejection of ideas that do not work and by the tentative acceptance of models that do work (in terms of making accurate predictions). However, they should not be expected to be treated with silk gloves when they promote anti-scientific ideas that have been debunked thousands and thousands of times before. If you genuinely want to be part of an intellectually honest discussion on scientific topics (such as vaccines, GM foods or evolution) at least try to do some actual reading of credible scientific sources, whether technical or popular.

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Mailbag: Countering Miscellaneous Pseudoscientific Nonsense

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

This round-up installment of the mailbag series will take on a three separate crank comments that were recently submitted to this website. I declined to publish anyone of them because they did not address any of the arguments or evidence that were presented in the articles, they repeated the same old pseudoscientific canards that been refuted thousands of times before and some of them promoted genocide denial.

First up is an anti-vaccine activist going by the name of Bomac. A little later, we will examine the falsehoods promoted by Holocaust denier Jeffrey Stafford and the belief that transgender people are delusional promoted by Obarryon King.

Vaccines are, in general, very safe and effective

Bomac starts off by claiming that:

Many of the claims of vaccine’s success are not true, but for the sake of discussion, presuming they are all true; that was then and this in now. Vaccines have changed today. Manufacturers include all kinds of toxins that are extremely harmful.

This is a common anti-vaccine tactic know as the toxin gambit. Either anti-vaccine cranks refuse to specify what these alleged toxins are, or they list essential vaccine ingredients that are not toxin at the concentrations used in vaccines. Polysorbate 80 is a nonionic emulsifier and is present in higher amounts in common ice cream. Formaldehyde is used to inactivate viruses to prevent them from causing disease and there is more of it occurring naturally in your body. Aluminum salts are adjuvants that increased the effectiveness of vaccines and have been safely used for 70 years. These are not the same as elemental aluminum and aluminum salts in the concentrations used in vaccines do not cause brain damage. Thimerosal, which is not the same as environmental mercury, has been removed from vaccines over a decade ago and only occurs in some multidose vials of seasonal influenza vaccine to protect against contamination. These are just a few examples of anti-vaccine misinformation about vaccine ingredients. Reliable information about vaccine ingredients can be found at the CDC and the FDA.

Just ask 47,000 paralyzed Indian girls that Bill Gates gifted.

The cases of paralysis occurring in India was caused not caused by the polio vaccine or even polio. According to The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, there was no reported cases of polio during the time these individuals became paralyzed. In reality, these cases were caused by non-polio enteroviruses, primarily Coxsackie-B and various echoviruses. This shows that anti-vaccine cranks seem to have little issue with exploiting human tragedy in their efforts to vilify vaccines.

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Metro Promotes Anti-Vaccine Homeopath During Measles Outbreak

Anti-vaccine crankery at Metro Calgary

Before vaccines, measles use to infect an estimated 3-4 million people a year in the United States (CDC, 2012). Measles led to brain inflammation for 1 in 1000 and death in 1 in 500 (CDC, 2012). Medical scientists have developed a safe and effective vaccine for measles that is now part of the standard vaccine schedule in most western countries. However, due to parents failing to vaccinate their children combined with the fact that no vaccine is 100% effective, herd immunity is compromised. This can lead to measles outbreak and the needless suffering of children.

Because of numerous measles cases in Calgary, Central and Edmonton, the Alberta Health Services (AHS) has officially declared that they are in the midst of several measles outbreaks in these zones (AHS, 2014). As a response, the AHS is now encouraging parents to make sure their children are up-to-date with their measles vaccines. In Calgary, more than 100 parents had lined up Northgate Measles Immunization Clinic before it opened. However, anti-vaccine cranks were not slow to exploit this situation.

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When Vaccine Promotion Fails

Vaccine hesitation

Despite the fact that the fraudulent (and now retracted) Wakefield paper from 1998 has been soundly refuted by modern medicine, vaccines are still socially controversial among some parents and communities. This has led to an increase in the number of vaccine-exemptions, delays in vaccinations, the erosion of herd immunity, and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. How can scientists, medical doctors and scientific skeptics effectively respond to parents hesitant about vaccines?

How do you convince parents who are hesitant to vaccine their children? Do you debunk common myths about vaccines causing autism with facts? Do you explain that vaccine-preventable diseases are dangerous? Do you show them graphic imagery of children suffering from vaccine-preventable diseases? Do you present a gripping narrative about a child who almost died from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles? As an added complications, some effort to correct irrational beliefs are counterproductive. Due to various backfire effects, correction can actually increase confidence in mistaken beliefs. Therefore, it is enormously important to research effective strategies for vaccine promotion.

A recent paper by Nyhan, Riefler, Richey and Freed (2014) examined this issue by randomly assigning a nationally representative sample of parents to one of the four interventions above or to a no-information control group for comparison. First, parents were asked to complete a pre-intervention baseline survey on child health, vaccine attitude, trust in medical authorities and child vaccine coverage. After they had been exposed to their respective interventions, they were asked questions to gauge their level of vaccine misinformation about side-effects of the MMR vaccine as well as their level of intention to vaccinate their children.

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Jenny McCarthy: Still an Anti-Vaccine Activist

Jenny McCarthy is anti-vaccine

Anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy has taken her own twisted self-delusions to an entirely new level. She has spent years on promoting demonstrably dangerous myths about how vaccines supposedly contain dangerous toxins that cause autism. She has repeatedly appeared on popular TV-shows to spread misinformation about the current vaccine schedule. She has deployed nearly every single gambit in the anti-vaccine play-book. In a move of enormous audacity, McCarthy wrote a piece for the Chicago Sun-Times trying to whitewash her deeply tainted anti-vaccine history. She now claims that she is not anti-vaccine at all and that the media has wrongly trusted “blatantly inaccurate” blog posts. In reality, her words betray her even in the midsts of writing her defense as she continues to parrot classic anti-vaccine distortions.

I am not “anti-vaccine.” This is not a change in my stance nor is it a new position that I have recently adopted. For years, I have repeatedly stated that I am, in fact, “pro-vaccine” and for years I have been wrongly branded as “anti-vaccine.”

If McCarthy is pro-vaccine, then why has she promoted dangerously false anti-vaccine tropes, including the notion that the MMR vaccine cause autism, that the preservative thimerosal cause autism and that multiple vaccines overwhelm the immune system cause autoimmune disease? It is right there, in the transcript of the interview she gave for the PBS documentary The Vaccine War. If she talks like an anti-vaccine activists and distort like an anti-vaccine activists, then she is an anti-vaccine activist. No matter what after-the-fact rationalizations she puts forward.

Let us see how McCarthy betrays herself in the very article she claims to not be anti-vaccine. Read more of this post

Is Donald Trump Scientifically Illiterate?

Donald Trump does not understand climate change

One of the most basic distinctions in climate science is the difference between weather and climate. Weather is the instantaneous atmospheric conditions, such as rainy, snowy, sunny and so on. Climate, on the other hand, is about long-term trends. Confusing weather with climate, claiming that we cannot predict climate because we cannot predict weather, or trying to argue against the existence of human-influenced climate change by referencing current weather events is one of the most common tactic used by climate change denier.

Trump fails on climate knowledge

Contrary to Trump, the existence of local anomalies does not refute a general trend. More about the difference of weather and climate can be found on the NASA website.

Donald Trump does not understand vaccines or the immune system

Trump claims to not be anti-vaccine, yet he pulls out a classic anti-vaccine trope:

Too many, too soon? Nope!

While the number of vaccines have increased over time, the number of immunological challenges (“antigens”) have decreased. This is because modern DNA technology has enabled researchers to include only those components that are necessary to produce a good response. In other words, vaccines poses a smaller challenge to the immune system now than it did in the past. For more information, see the Offit et al. (2002) paper in Pediatrics.

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Half of Americans Believe in Medical Conspiracy Theories

Medical conspiracy theories

An interesting study was recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine by Oliver and Wood (2014). They report the results of a YouGov survey that looked at the acceptance of medical conspiracy theories in the United States and what, if any, effect the belief in medical conspiracy theories had on health-related behavior, such as taking herbal supplements, getting a flu shot and preference for organic foods. The results were chilling as almost half of the U. S. population believed in at least one medical conspiracy. Those who held three or more were less likely to go to the doctor or dentist and fewer got vaccinated against seasonal influenza. They were also more likely to take herbal supplements.

The selection of medical conspiracy theories

Oliver and Wood selected six different medical conspiracy theories to include in their research. Although the researchers did not justify their selection, it seems representative and wide as it spanned from FDA and alternative medicine to discredited beliefs about the origin of HIV Read more of this post

Neil deGrasse Tyson Invites Anti-Science Activist Mayim Bialik

Holistic Moms Network

Many scientific skeptics may recognize Mayim Bialik from hit TV-shows such as Blossom and The Big Bang Theory. In the latter, she plays the neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler who becomes the girlfriend of the physicist Sheldon Cooper. In real life, she has a PhD in a very similar field as Amy, namely neuroscience. One would think that this provides some protection against being subverted by irrational pseudoscience. However, Bialik is a notorious promoter of a wide range of different pseudosciences, including anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, alternative medicine, Waldorf schools and homebirth quacktivism.

In 2009, Bialik became a celebrity spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network (here is their description of holistic parenting). On their website, they promote the American anti-vaccine activist Barbara Loe Fischer and recommend homeopathy as an alternative treatment to post-partum depression. In a 2011 interview, Bialik explained that she is homeschooling her children and in a 2012 interview, she confessed to using the Waldorf “philosophy” to attain this goal (which includes not letting her children watch TV or see movies). In a 2009 interview, she admitted to being “a non-vaccinating family” and claimed that she based her decision on “research and discussions with our pediatrician”. In a 2012 post on her blog, she says that she does not want to discuss her beliefs about vaccines, but deploys the classic “too many, too soon” trope. David Gorski discusses her ideas about vaccines in additional details here. In a 2012 article on homebirth, she promoted a number of classic quacktivist beliefs despite the fact that homebirth causes considerable more deaths compared with giving birth in a hospital. She calls these facts “hysteria-inducing” stories and that it is “insulting to any woman’s intuition and intelligence”. In late 2012, she posted the following on her official Facebook page: “California voters: the condoms you approved for sex workers to have to wear (which I voted for too)… maybe I’ll wear them when I eat my unlabeled genetically modified food. Sound good?”

In other words, being a neuroscientist does not, no pun intended, make you immune to pseudoscience.

Recently, American astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson decided to invite Bialik to his talk show StarTalk.

Tyson's screw-up?

He claims that they will be discussing neuroscience. But why is Tyson inviting an anti-science activist such as Bialik? Why is he giving her a platform to spread her pseudoscientific quackery? Is Tyson unaware about her beliefs or does not care as long as he can sell tickets to the show? Clarification is badly needed at this point.

Anti-Vaccine Misinformation about the Seasonal Influenza Vaccine

Related: Mike Adams and The Deadly Doctor Gambit, Mainstream Climate Science Defeats Global Crank Mike Adams.

Natural News spreads misinformation about seasonal influenza vaccine

Natural News is perhaps the largest website devoted to the promotion of quack treatments for almost any medical condition and anti-scientific falsehoods. They spread a massive amount of misinformation on a wide range of topics such as climate change, genetically modified foods, water fluoridation, vaccines and advocate conspiracy theories about contrails, aspartame, antidepressants and even about the 2012 Aurora shooting. Its founder, Mike Adams, have been discussed on this website before when he attempted to dismiss the harmful consequences of global warming by parroting the same tired old denialist falsehoods about the fertilization effect and coral bleaching. He also attempts to argue that doctors are more dangerous than guns (a pseudoscientific argument called the deadly doctor gambit), apparently without taking into account the enormous benefit that modern medicine brings.

Recently, the Natural News website published a post written by Ethan A. Hoff that is spreading pseudoscientific misinformation about the seasonal influenza vaccine. He falsely claim that the efficacy of the inactivated seasonal influenza vaccine is just 1.5%, when in reality, it is close to 60%. He denies that over 200 000 people become hospitalized from influenza-related complications and blames that on the vaccine instead. He also fearmongers about the side-effects when they are most often fairy mild. Finally, there is no consistent evidence that vitamin D, garlic or any of the other “natural health” products that Hoff promotes can prevent influenza infection. Read more of this post

The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part X: Measles

Note: This is the tenth and final installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. This post will slash through her false claims about the MMR vaccine and measles. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

Bliss on measles

We have now reached the final part in this series on the pseudoscientific nonsense promoted by model and freelance writer Stasia Bliss (who calls herself a “master alchemist” and “a High Priestess of Qi Vesta”). In previous installments, several of her claims have been refuted, such as her claim that individuals with cystic fibrosis caused their own disease by eating acidic food and thinking negative thoughts, that colon cleansing and hydrochloric acid supplements are effective against HIV/AIDS, that staring into the sun for long periods of time allows for astral projection and unaided human flight, that DNA has twelve strands, that a vital life force exists, that eating genetically modified foods makes you less humans, that dark matter does not exist, her promotion of quantum woo and her belief in human shape-shifting and death as the result of a psychological conditioning.

In this tenth and final part, the claims made by Bliss with regards to measles and the MMR vaccine will be critically examined. Despite her beliefs, measles is a dangerous disease and not a “natural cleansing” or “adventure” and the MMR vaccine is safe and effective. Her misguided reliance on the National Vaccine Information Center (a pseudoscientific anti-vaccine organization) and VAERS dumpster-diving will be exposed. Contrary to Bliss, the Vaccine Court provides individuals who have experienced genuine adverse events from vaccines with compensations in a way that is easy, cheap and fast for those individuals. Like many other anti-vaccine activists, Bliss has difficulty grasping the concept of herd immunity. Her promotion of quack treatments (that lack evidence of efficacy) is based on a misunderstanding of physiology and evolution. She even goes so far as to claim that childhood diseases are a result of too much “toxins” from modern life (thereby embracing germ theory denialism), apparently not understanding that measles existed many hundreds of years before present and the fact that the body has robust systems for elimination actual toxins from the body. Read more of this post

Bill Gates, Vaccines and Human Depopulation

Bill Gates and Vaccines

Vaccines represents one of the biggest public health victories in human history. Vaccines were responsible for eradicating smallpox and greatly reducing the incidence of new infections of diseases such as polio, diphtheria, measles, rubella, rotavirus and many others. However, vaccines have to some extent been the victims of their own success: when they work, the average person do not come into contact with those diseases anymore, which can lead to complacency and sometimes outright science denialism.

Despite this enormous public health success, irrational anti-vaccine sentiments based on ignorance and fear mongering continues to exist. Often, they appeal to fraudulent studies or to safe but scary-sounding names of vaccines components. Sometimes, they even succumb to grand conspiracy theories involving vaccines and world domination based on nothing but misunderstood quotes taken out of context.

In reality, vaccines and general improvements in health care availability increases the living standards of individuals. As people become better off, they tend to have fewer children. A society having fewer children will reduce the population growth i.e. reduce the rate at which the human population is increasing. This bares no resemblance whatsoever to the irrational conspiracy theories who posit and evil and draconian plan spearheaded by Bill Gates that is somehow going to cause massive depopulation. This post examines and clarifies the quotes by Gates that anti-vaccine cranks take out of context. Read more of this post

Mailbag: Anti-Vaccine Myths, Pharma Shill Gambit and Vaccine Court

Challenge Accepted

Recently, an anti-vaccine activist by the name of “peter” posted a comment on my article Irrefutable Evidence Shows That Anti-Vaccine Activists Still Have No Clue (were I destroyed some anti-vaccine propaganda written by Dave Mihalovic). It did not address any arguments and attacked me directly, yet I think it can still be useful to unravel and debunk his claims about scientific skeptics, vaccines and the U.S. legal system. This exercise also highlights some of the common rhetorical devices that anti-vaccine activists make use of in their efforts to undermine modern medicine.

The basics flaws in his approach are (1) the use of the “pharma shill” gambit, (2) the gross ignorance about the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (also known as “vaccine court”) and the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) and (3) the deployment of anti-vaccine crankery about the alleged negative health effects of vaccines.

As we shall see, the pharma shill gambit is just a vacuous rationalization to psychologically shield anti-vaccine beliefs, vaccine court / VICP are more beneficial to individuals who have suffered a genuine adverse effect of vaccines (faster, cheaper and requires a much lighter burden of evidence to be met) and the peer-review literature as well as scientific reports by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and others show that vaccines are not linked to the conditions he claims.

Here is what Peter has to say about me and vaccines: Read more of this post

Irrefutable Evidence Shows That Anti-Vaccine Activists Still Have No Clue

irrefutable evidence?

Intellihub is an online “alternative” news site that claims to provide “independent news for independent minds” founded by Shepard Ambellas. The background story is already cliché: mainstream media are somehow controlled by evil corporations and Intellihub wants to “inform” people what is really going on by providing them “top notch information”. In reality, the so called news site is a propaganda tool used by conspiracy theorists to spread their pseudoscientific falsehoods about 9/11, synthetic biology, genetically modified foods, alleged depopulation and vaccines.

In a recent anti-vaccine post, Dave Mihalovic spews the same old recycled garbage that defenders of science-based medicine has refuted thousands of times. In stark contrast to the claims made by Mihalovic, vaccines led to a decline in the spread of infectious diseases, vaccines provide only a negligible challenge to the immune system of the developing child, the increase in allergies can be explained by the hygiene hypothesis and correlation between two things does not imply a causal relationship. Read more of this post

Swedish Anti-Vaccine Infection Parties for Measles and Rubella

infection party

Near the Swedish capital Stockholm lies a small city called Järna. It is the main center for the anthroposophy movement in the country. The city has several Waldorf schools and even a medical clinic called Vidarkliniken. The clinic was awarded with “Misleader of the Year” by the Swedish Skeptic Association in 2008 for their pseudoscientific treatments, which include homeopathy. Despite this, the clinic continues to receive some political support and financial support from the regional municipality. Vidarkliniken has also been in the news recently when they gave mustard leaves to a patient with a cerebral hemorrhage. In 2012, the largest outbreak of Rubella since 1989 occurred in Järna and all fifty cases (compared with a couple of cases per year) could be connected to the region. The proximate origin of the outbreak is thought to be from India where a group of people traveled to and so non-vaccinated individuals got infected and brought it back, making rubella explode in the community.

The Swedish anti-vaccine movement is particularly strong in Järna and parents prefer to take their children to infection parties instead of vaccinating them. The basic idea behind an infection party is that you bring a bunch of susceptible children to spend time with a child that is currently infected with e.g. measles, rubella or chicken pox and hope that the non-infected children become infected. According to anti-vaccine cranks, this hardens the immune system of the child and they see it as a rite of passage. In addition, anthroposophist believe that it is good for the child’s spirit.

For proponents of science-based medicine, this is dangerous for children because the diseases can cause harmful complications and safe vaccines are available against those diseases. Read more of this post


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