Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

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.

Postmodernism in the service of science denialism

Hunter, predictably, appeal to postmodernist deconstruction in his effort to spread doubts about the scientific community:

Does Hiatt understand that science is conducted by humans and not robots? Humans with political, cultural, religious, social and career pressures and concerns.

Sure, scientists are humans and are sometimes undermined by various biases. That is why we have a scientific community composed of individuals with different backgrounds, personalities and ideas from different fields. Add in some healthy competition, and you got a recipe for bias destruction. No matter how much your bias affects you and the researchers in your lab, other labs who attempt to replicate your research might be in a completely different cultural and social context.

It is highly entertaining when proponents of pseudoscience appeal to this kind of postmodernist deconstruction. This is because it is instantaneously self-refuting as pseudoscience has considerably less checks and balances to handles these common human biases. If they are enough to spread uncertainty and doubt about science as a human endeavor, then they are more than enough to dispatch notions of pseudoscience as fatally biased and flawed.

Indeed, as philosophers well understand, scientific consensus changes with the seasons and is hardly a paragon of truth. Scientists thought continental drift was crazy and that genetic mutations must be independent of need. Even Einstein rejected quantum mechanics. All of these are now well accepted.

Scientific consensus does change even today, but it does not change arbitrarily. It is improved and updated to include new evidence, but this does not mean that the previous explanation is completely rejected. However, a new model has to make the same predictions in the region where both the new and old models agree. The continental drift example is a very old one and stationary continents was not based on substantial amount of evidence. Whether Einstein accepted or not accepted quantum mechanics has nothing to do with the validity of consensus positions. For all his brilliance, he was a single individual and does not constitute the scientific community on this own. The claim that mutations are not independent of need is false. The consequences of a mutation has no impact on its probability of occurring.

Global cooling was never a widely accepted concern among scientists

Hunter digs up and trouts out the tiresome myth of global cooling:

A few years ago global cooling was the concern

In reality, there was only about seven papers predicting global cooling between the years 1965-1979 compared with over 40 who predicted global warming and almost twenty who were neutral. There was no scientific consensus that global cooling was a concern and the peer-review literature was arguably filled with concerns about global warming. The idea that global cooling was promoted in the 1970s (and thus somehow showing that scientists change their minds and cannot be trusted) comes mostly from two poorly written popular articles in Time Magazine and Newsweek and perhaps a misunderstanding of the possibility of an atomic winter after a potential global nuclear war.

None of this means that man-made global warming is not true. In spite of the data adjustments, and in spite of the thoughtful concerns that have been expressed, it may well be true. But we don’t need to start calling names when people aren’t sure.

The problem with denialists is not that “they are unsure”. The problem is that they deploy intellectually dishonest techniques like quoting out of context, confusing mechanism with fact, obfuscating basic science, repeating clams that have been debunked thousands of times and so on.

Efficacy of vaccines is not based on correlational fallacies

Hunter displays the profound ignorance of his arguments about vaccines when he writes:

Radio journalist Hugh Hewitt, for example, has been castigating parents who do not vaccinate their children, assuring his listeners that vaccines are safe and the decision is a no-brainer. What about the many vaccine injuries? Hewitt echoes Hume with the absurd refrain that correlation does not imply causation. How then does Hewitt advocate vaccines in the first place?

Hunter thinks that the only argument for vaccine efficacy is correlational. He could not be more wrong. This is because evidence of vaccine efficacy comes from controlled laboratory experiments where scientists test to see if the vaccine generates protective antibody levels compared with a placebo and randomized control trials that compares the portion of individuals that get sick in the vaccinated and placebo group. It isn’t merely correlational.

Very harmful vaccine side-effects are exceedingly rare

Hunter continues by trotting out a case of a girl called Lorrin Kain who apparently developed “severe brain damage” and “uncontrolled seizures” after getting the older DTP vaccine. However, the research that has been done has been inconsistent and not able to show a clear relationship between that vaccine and severe neurological complications. Thus, it is not possible to be justified in the conclusion that it was a vaccine injury. Furthermore, even if it was a vaccine injury, it is exceptionally rare and that vaccine has been replaced by the acellular pertussis vaccine. Yes, vaccines do have risks like any medication, but the benefit clearly outweighs the risk for vaccines on the childhood vaccine schedule.

In his next post, he appeals to the case of another girl called Meredith Prohaska, who died some time after getting a HPV vaccine. However, as he himself admits, mainstream medicine does have an explanation for her death, namely Diphenhydramine intoxication. Hunter repeats the claim that researchers think vaccines are safe because correlation does not imply causation. Wrong again. Scientists and doctors consider vaccines used on the schedule to be safe because of the scientific studies that show this.

And of course the benefits and risks do not fit a simple formula. Each vaccine is different, and each person is different. Science can inform, but it cannot answer the difficult risk-reward tradeoff question.

Yes, science can answers those questions by doing scientific studies that looks at efficacy and safety and this is done (1) per vaccine and (2) makes sure that the samples are representative of the population at large.

Vaccine court handles compensation for vaccine injury

The quandary is further complicated by the fact that the vaccine manufacturers have their own special federal law protecting them against the normal law suit process where adequate damages can be sought.

Because of the American litigation culture, scared parents blaming vaccines without good reason and the intrinsic low profitability of vaccines, pharmaceutical companies started dropping vaccines from their production line and the entire vaccine production industry was threatened in the U. S. To ensure that the U. S. would continue to produce vaccines and not be dependent on others, they changed the system so that parents have to first go through a special vaccine court before they can sue manufacturers. This is, in fact, a better system for parents with children that has gotten injuries by vaccines. The process is faster, the financial compensation is fair and the burden of evidence is reduced substantially. If the parents are denied compensation, they can, according to Sugarman (2007), “bring a regular lawsuit alleging that a product is defective, and the named defendant can potentially be found liable.” In summary, the current system is better for the victims of real vaccine injury.

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11 responses to “When Creationism and Anti-Vaccine Activism Mesh

  1. Black Metal Valkyrie March 28, 2015 at 19:43

    My two uncles two are brothers and used to work in the healthcare field. They are anti-abortion, anti-birth control and skeptical of evolution. One is really strongly anti-birth control and abortion because he is a born again Catholic. One is less extreme but more an apologist for this kind of thought. The Catholic extremist one used to be a pharmacist and the other one used to be a denturist. My own GP actually suggested a naturopath for SEID treatment more than once and I have always refused. I think its CRAZY that in some places, naturopaths are allowed to prescribe antibiotics. You know when we have an antibiotic resistance pandemic and everything. Crazy thought that there is anti-contraception pharmacists out there. I told my anti-abortion uncle and grandmother about an org called Catholics for Choice and they said they are not real Catholics. I am a Pagan polytheist myself and see nothing in conflict with my beliefs and evolution. I can’t imagine how so many people in Abrahamic religions manage the cognitive dissonance to deny something that is so well understood by scientists and explains so much.

  2. Black Metal Valkyrie March 28, 2015 at 19:47

    Reblogged this on Black Metal Valkyrie: Reject male identified bullshit! and commented:
    “Postmodernism is the service of science denialism” Still waiting for the male dominated skeptical community to apply this to queer theory…

  3. Black Metal Valkyrie March 28, 2015 at 19:54

    I think its greasy of them to exploit people’s death for their anti-science narrative. I would sue if an anti-vaxxer ever did something like that to someone I love who passed away.

    I have a vaccine question for you. My dad is a heavy smoker and construction labourer. He never gets the flu vaccine because he claims it makes him feel sick and throw up. I think its a placebo because the shot has no live virus and I worry about him having influenza when he already has asthma and smokes. Is there any reason the flu shot would make him throw up and feel sick?

    • Emil Karlsson March 28, 2015 at 21:21

      There have been some reports about nausea. From the CDC website:

      Most people who receive the flu shot do not experience serious problems from it. Mild problems that may be experienced include soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given, fainting (mainly adolescents), headache, muscle aches, fever, and nausea. If these problems occur, they usually begin soon after the shot and last 1 to 2 days. Life-threatening allergic reactions to vaccines are very rare. If they do occur, it is usually within a few minutes to a few hours after the shot is given.

      I do not know if these are established cause-and-effect relationships or if they are merely reported.

      At any rate, I would probably keep repeating that getting influenza sucks more and longer than getting the flu shot.

    • Black Metal Valkyrie March 28, 2015 at 21:26

      That’s what I try to tell him but he’s so stubborn. The positive thing is everyone in our house except for him has their shot. The bad thing is that his coworker says shots are against his religion so he, his wife and kids don’t get any shots. Their son recently got chicken pox. He’s in middle school and was in a lot of pain. Just seems like such a waste when it could have been prevented. The chicken pox vaccine wasn’t available where I live when I was young but I wish I could have had it because preventing shingles is a really positive thing.

  4. Black Metal Valkyrie March 28, 2015 at 21:23

    What do you think of the NTE (near term extinction) movement? Why is there not a lot of skeptical analysis of this subculture?

  5. Criticaldragon1177 March 30, 2015 at 07:41

    Emil Karlsson,

    Finally Creationism and anti vaccination on the same webpage! To think I was worried that creationists wouldn’t try anything new.

  6. Criticaldragon1177 March 30, 2015 at 08:00

    Emil Karlsson,

    I’ll bet this is how Cornelius Hunter makes you feel.

  7. Criticaldragon1177 March 30, 2015 at 08:09

    Emil Karlsson,

    By the way, here’s something else face palm worthy for you to debunk.

    Its from a right wing US website.

    Are conservatives anti-science?

    • Criticaldragon1177 March 30, 2015 at 08:17

      By the way, sorry I meant to use “Do Not Link” so it wouldn’t increase the site’s visibility with search engines, but forgot and I just remembered after posting it.

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