Jimmy Kimmel’s awesome rant about parents who won’t vaccinate their kids… plus the PSA his crew put together using actual doctors. Great stuff! Lots of humor regarding a serious issue that always has me shaking my head in dismay (and disgust).
Orac, of Respectful Insolence, has a post about how global warming wasn’t "invented" by Al Gore, contrary to what many global warming deniers seem to think. However, the part I find especially interesting in his piece is his explanation of why denialists tend to attack people.
Here’s an excerpt:
If there’s one characteristic of denialists of all stripes, it’s that they have a strong tendency to personalize their dislike of their particular bete noir science.
The reason, of course, is that cranks can’t attack the science using good science and, of course, it’s far easier to attack a person than well-supported science. After all, all people have flaws that can be ridiculed or used as the basis of ad hominem attacks.
Like Orac, I’ve seen this from global warming deniers, anti-vaxxers, religious fundamentalists, and anti-evolution creationists. Whatever motivates them in their denial, it seems they share this common tactic of attacking the messenger.
From evolution to vaccinations to global warming, something I encounter on a regular basis on television and the internet is denialism, rejecting the scientific evidence in favor of an alternative… an alternative which could be anything from pure woo to scientific-sounding arguments: “Just have faith” to “irreducible complexity.” Denialism is something that invariably causes a collective sigh an eye roll from the skeptic community because logical and fact-based responses seem to have no effect on denialists.
An article from the European Journal of Public Health defines denialism as “the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.” The article goes on to identify five common characteristics of denialism. I’ve seen all of these “in the wild,” but items one through three are the ones I see most often.
These five characteristics were summarized by Debora MacKenzie in a New Scientist opinion piece titled Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth and are as follows:
MacKenzie also adds a sixth characteristic.
Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.
In the New Scientist piece, MacKenzie looks at the “why” of denialism.
This depressing tale [about swine flu] is the latest incarnation of denialism, the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe. There’s a lot of it about, attacking evolution, global warming, tobacco research, HIV, vaccines – and now, it seems, flu. But why does it happen? What motivates people to retreat from the real world into denial?
Her approach uses a softer glove than many skeptics use, avoiding outright condemnation of deniers but instead making an attempt to understand how denialism spreads: identifying common characteristics, tactics (above), causes, motives, and possible solutions.
The most notable common characteristic that MacKenzie defines is this.
All [denialists] set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people.
I can anecdotally confirm that statement, both in my personal life and in my readings.
Where MacKenzie goes after that is to a hypothesis that what really triggers denialism is a sense of loss of control… a hypothesis that seems a good fit to the major denialist issues.
It is this sense of loss of control that really matters. In such situations, many people prefer to reject expert evidence in favour of alternative explanations that promise to hand control back to them, even if those explanations are not supported by evidence
All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.
She goes on to explain that this position is not necessarily malicious or anti-science. They simply require a human reaction.
It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.
The origins of denialist claims are another matter, and MacKenzie talks about how many of the more prominent claims (tobacco, global warming) got their start with corporate backing, how deniers tend to attract other deniers, and how claims become politically and religiously charged.
The European Journal of Public Health article isn’t as philosophical in its analysis of denialist motivations, but hits home nonetheless.
Denialists are driven by a range of motivations. For some it is greed, lured by the corporate largesse of the oil and tobacco industries. For others it is ideology or faith, causing them to reject anything incompatible with their fundamental beliefs. Finally there is eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, sometimes encouraged by the celebrity status conferred on the maverick by the media.
Whatever the motivations (personal, political, financial, etc), the one thing that remains true among denialist claims is their distortion (or complete rejection) of the truth. For many issues, such as vaccinations and global warming, denialism has caused and will cause lives to be lost. For others, such as the rejection of evolution, their positions simply contribute to the “dumbing down” of America.
The frustration of dealing with most deniers is the almost impenetrable armor of ignorance they wear which deflects attempts at presenting actual evidence, be it factual or logical. They counter by trotting out any of the tactics listed at the beginning of this article, selecting the one that best fits the topic at hand. Cherry pick this evidence. Trot out this fake expert. Rage about this conspiracy theory.
When all else fails, bring up Hitler.
Newsweek has an article today titled The Long Term Evidence for Vaccines and it does a great job showing just how important vaccinations are and how vaccinations provide invaluable benefits to children.
The article starts out on a depressing (and infuriating) note…
Throughout North America and Europe, an anti-vaccination movement has steadily grown over the past two decades, and was recently jet-propelled amid anxiety over immunizing pregnant women and children against the H1N1 “swine flu.” The greatest fall-off in child vaccination, and the strongest proponents of various theoretical dangers associated with vaccines, are all rooted in wealthy, mostly Caucasian communities, located in the rich world. At a time when billions of people living in poorer countries are clamoring for equitable access to life-sparing drugs and vaccines for their families, the college-educated classes of the United States and other rich countries are saying “no thanks,” even accusing their governments of “forcing” them to give “poison” to their children.
…but goes on to lay out the evidence regarding the importance of both childhood vaccinations and vaccinations for pregnant women (for the benefit of the unborn child).
Other vaccine-preventable diseases—measles, rubella, mumps, chickenpox, and whooping cough—can damage the optic nerves and hearing of fetuses and newborns. The effect in these cases is immediate and obvious. In the pre-vaccine era in the United States, a thousand kids lost their hearing every year due to measles infection, five out of every 10,000 children who contracted mumps suffered permanent deafness, and 10 percent of child deafness was due to rubella (a.k.a. German measles).
And today, in countries with spotty child-immunization achievements—including the United Kingdom—viral infection in utero or in infancy accounts for 10 to 25 percent of child deafness.
There’s plenty more information in the article and it’s definitely worth a read, especially for those who may be unsure about whether to vaccinate their children and need some convincing.
What happens when people choose not to protect their children with the appropriate vaccinations (or choose not to get vaccinations themselves)? We lose the “herd immunity” protection that helps keep potentially deadly diseases from affecting those who cannot get the vaccines due to age or health reasons. Refusing vaccinations for communicable illnesses (measles, mumps, rubella, polio, pertussis, flu, etc) is not only irresponsible, it’s potentially deadly and puts the general population at risk for illnesses that were all but nonexistent in developed countries… before the anti-vaxxers started their campaign of misinformation.
The article elaborates…
The unimmunized few are a threat to all, as they may harbor viruses and pass them onto others whose vaccine-induced immunity is waning due to HIV, cancer, or simply the passing of time. Conversely, failing to be immunized in childhood renders young adults vulnerable to infectious diseases that they may not encounter until they go off to college or travel outside of their home regions.
Vaccines are one of the most effective and important scientific advances in medical history. They have saved countless lives and continue to protect our population from potentially deadly or debilitating diseases. Due to the misinformation that is frequently spread regarding vaccines, however, the frequency of childhood vaccinations has been declining, threatening not only the health of the children, but our herd immunity that is so desperately needed to protect those with compromised or weak immune systems.
The article concludes with this
Yes, the proper adjective [for vaccines] is “precious”: miracles of science that, combined with smallpox immunization, saved more lives during the 20th century than were lost in all the wars, all the genocides, and all the epidemics of that hundred years. When a baby in an African village dies of measles, or a schoolchild in China succumbs to typhoid fever, none can question how precious that lost life was, or how vital a difference a vaccine could have made.
Get your children (and yourself) vaccinated.
Newsweek has a great article addressing all the misinformation flying around regarding the H1N1 vaccine. It’s definitely well done and worth the time to read, if only to counter those folks who cry about conspiracies and dangers and government plots to use vaccines to control your mind by enslaving you with a thought-control drug and giving you Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Vaccines are a critical tool in our medical arsenal to combat illness and death. Major diseases have been all but eradicated from the face of the planet due to vaccinations and others have been reduced to the point of near insignificance because of the effect of herd immunity in the world population. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy has a great rundown of articles about the benefits and safety of vaccines, including Gardasil, the relatively new HPV vaccine.
Here are the summary points from the Newsweek article about the H1N1 vaccine.
Read the whole article to hear some of the crazy misinformation flying around… and the actual facts that show why it’s crazy.
…then tell others.
Dr. Joe Albietz is a pediatrician who is among the people who outspokenly refute the anti-vaxxers of the world (like Jenny McCarthy). This is his talk from TAM 7 about vaccinations and what they’ve done for humanity. It’s worth a viewing. As Phil Plait says about the video…
If you think vaccines are an evil conspiracy, are designed to make us sick, are filled with toxins, are a bad thing, then spend 6 minutes and 53 seconds educating yourself.
Because you’re wrong.
Here’s the video.
Almost everyone laughs at Flat-Earthers, people who actually believe that the Earth is flat despite all evidence to the contrary. Most people also laugh at the Moon-Hoaxers, the folks who think that we never landed on the moon and that it’s all just a conspiracy with elaborately faked footage, photos, and reports. Conspiracy theorists in general provide a good laugh for most rational people, whether it’s talk of alien abductions, secret government programs with captured spaceships, crop circles, the Illuminati taking control of the world, or government mind control drugs in public water.
There’s a long history of conspiracy theory and one would think that that history would be just that… history… a thing of the past. Barring a few fringe groups, we don’t expect to see people outright denying scientifically proven facts or making accusations of secret, intricate, tangled webs of clockwork precision government cover-ups.
Yet we have just that… and not just among small “fringe” groups. Here’s a short list (in addition to the ones already mentioned).
I’m sure there are many more. Some of the ideas are absurd because of historical evidence, some because of scientific evidence, and some because of their sheer implausibility (backed up by no evidence). Some are combinations.
A common thread, however, is that each of them ignores or denies actual evidence contradictory to its premise. In some cases, their proponents will fabricate evidence, making scientific or historical claims that are patently false in an attempt to bolster their case. Using outdated, no-longer-relevant data is also a common tactic, whether through ignorance or malicious intent.
What is the motivation for people to believe and perpetuate these absurd claims? Sometimes it’s politics. Sometimes it’s religion. Sometimes it’s an overactive imagination. There are plenty of other psychological reasons proposed.
Is this a big deal? Are conspiracy theories just good fun or are they harmful or dangerous? In some cases, like the lizard-people idea, they’re harmlessly silly and don’t gain enough traction in popular culture to cause anything other than snickering and pretend horror. In other cases, such as Holocaust deniers and 9/11 conspiracy theorists, they can cause emotional pain for those who are close to the event in question. In the worse cases, the conspiracy theories can gain enough traction to cause political turmoil, educational degradation, and even health risks. Global warming deniers, creationists, and anti-vaxxers are perfect examples of these.
Potentially dangerous effects aside, these conspiracy theories show a lack of critical thinking skills and/or a lack of understanding of science. Perhaps they demonstrate an innate distrust for any authority figure… to the point of automatically assuming that anything said by an authority figure is innately false or misleading (regardless of whether or not the figure in question has anything to gain by misleading the public). Perhaps they simply indicate a complete lack of curiosity, their proponents believing everything they hear without any skepticism at all. Politics and religion can also entrench someone firmly in a position that is rationally indefensible.
It’s the groups whose ideas have a tangible, negative effect on society that concern me the most. Folks who believe that lizard-people are controlling the Earth are relatively harmless and somewhat amusing. It’s the people who think that our activities don’t have an affect on our planet’s warming and who want to block any action we could take to limit that affect… or it’s those who feel that it’s okay to teach our children that our world was created by magic, corrupting science education, instead of teaching them the real science behind the wondrous way in which life evolved on our planet… or it’s the people who publicly mislead doting parents with bogus claims that childhood vaccines cause autism, leading those parents to forgo protecting their children which, in turn, leads to everyone else’s health being put in danger.
Those are the conspiracy theorists that I have a problem with. Those are the people who have a detrimental effect on society. Those are the people whose blindness to rationality, evidence, and critical thinking cause harm to the rest of the world. They cheapen our existence, mislead our children, endanger our health, corrupt our national discourse, and create hostile divisions where there should be none… and they will defend their absurd positions with a ferocious certainty that is completely unwarranted by evidence.
What’s the solution? In my opinion… education. Starting in grade school, children need to be taught how to think, not what to think. Critical thinking skills are… well… critical. The scientific method needs to be understood… not just science facts, but the why and how of the facts. And these skills need to be taught, not just to school children, but to adults.
As for those adults who refuse to accept evidence and continue to scream their absurdities from the rooftops, they need to be countered… loudly, frequently, and eloquently. We cannot silence them by removing their right to free speech, but we can do everything in our power to point out their muddled thinking, debunk their bogus conclusions, and reveal them for the charlatans they are. They should be embarrassed by their own silliness and we need to hold up a mirror to them, giving them a perfect view of their intellectual ugliness. They will complain, accuse, deny, quite possibly lie… and they will be loud.
We need to be louder.
Note: Cross posted from Rationality Now.