Don’t suffer anti-vaccination propaganda gladly

Jun 12, 2012 | Health, Logical fallacies, Vaccination | 4 comments

Hug me, I'm Vaccinated

My wife teaches yoga. I practice yoga. I make it clear that I’m a consumer of yoga and not a yogi. I don’t pay attention to the philosophy or spiritual side, but I like the fact that at 64 I can touch my toes and do a few other things that I might not otherwise be able to do.

As the spouse of a member of the community I know lots of other teachers. Yesterday I saw a post on Facebook by a senior yoga teacher who I’ve known for years and like a lot. He was saying that his students ask him about vaccination quit a bit. He said he wouldn’t and hasn’t vaccinated his kids and he said:

Our decision was based on our research through the current literature as well as my experience as molecular biologist and genetic engineer.

And yes, 20 years ago or so he was a molecular biologist and genetic engineer. As a friend (a real scientist) said to me this morning

Sad to see someone who studied molecular biology go over to the dark side.

The fact that he is a yoga teacher isn’t relevant to this post except that he’s quite senior and very well known.  He has close to 3000 friends on Facebook and is likely quite influential. The yoga community in my experience is a lot more anti-vaccine than the community in general so he probably has an audience that will warm to his arguments.

On Facebook I see lots of nonsense in the posts and in the ads. Political, new age, free energy, alternative medicine, crystal healing, lots and lots of crap. Most of it has me roll my eyes and move on. By this point in my life it’s pretty clear to me that in a world where the vast majority of people believe in a fairy tale (i.e. religion) belief in other weird things is just the way it’s going to be. I know that a lot of those beliefs have the potential to do some harm, but it’s usually minimal and quite localised. They are not likely to hurt people beyond a small circle of friends and family. I’m willing to move on and try to keep a straight face.

Vaccination is different. People who are anti-vaccine or who have rejected vaccines for one reason or another seem to think that it’s a private matter. It only affects them and their kids and it’s no one else’s business. The yoga teacher said (after strongly arguing against vaccines)

But I would never recommend our decision to anyone as it is so personal. You have do decide for yourself.

Then he went on to argue against vaccines some more.

But vaccination is much more than a personal decision. Your decision to not vaccinate yourself and your kids affects everyone in your circle. And your circle is your kids school, playground, hospital, their friends, their grandparents, your neighbour’s infant daughter, and your entire community. When it comes to infectious disease your decision affects me and my love ones. Maybe that’s why the yoga teacher’s post upset me so much.

People who don’t vaccinate do research. But I believe that most or many of them are using motivated reasoning and confirmation bias to make their decision. Motivated reasoning means they’ve actually made up their minds prior to the research and no matter what they find they will interpret it as proving that vaccines can’t be trusted. It also means that they’ll mostly look at anti-vaccine sites to do their research and believe what they find as being conclusive. Confirmation bias means that they’ll ignore whatever disagrees with their prior conclusion and notice anything that agrees. What it is that has them make up their minds in the first place is a good question, but I’m convinced it precedes everything else. As such there is usually little point in arguing or discussing the science of vaccination. If there are 50 studies showing the benefit of vaccination and 1 that suggests a problem, they will only see the one and ignore the 50.

It’s sad when someone who has worked in science goes down that path, but they are certainly not immune. It’s pretty human. Vaccination has worked so well that we rarely see vaccine preventable diseases. It’s easy to focus on the risks of the vaccine while ignoring the dangers of diseases you no longer see around you. People in places where children are dying of vaccine preventable diseases are rarely anti-vaccine. But we in the west are protected (by everyone else who is getting vaccinated) and feel like we have the luxury of having vaccination be a “personal decision”.

When anti-vaccine propaganda appears on my computer screen (assuming I haven’t gone searching for it) I always respond. If people choose to not vaccinate their kids so be it. I think they are selfish, misinformed and wrong, but I suppose that’s their right. When people spout propaganda or forward someone else’s propaganda I try to call them on it. I’m surprised I haven’t been unfriended more often than I have. But I notice that those who happily forwarded antivax propaganda tend to not do it after I jump on them a couple of times.  Sometimes other critical thinkers pile on. It feels worth the effort.

I’d encourage anyone who is upset by anti-vaccination propaganda do the same. We won’t get Meryl Dory or Jenny McCarthy to shut up, but a lot of people who aren’t quite that bat-shit crazy might figure it’s just not worth the bother.

It’s only a small thing, but it might help.