Sunday, March 27, 2011
The Vaccine Debate Part 2: With Whom is the Debate and Should We Listen?
The Vaccine Debates Part 2: With Whom Is the Debate?
As I've been looking more into the vaccination “debate” (I'm using quotes because amongst scientists and physicians there is no debate) I've discovered a wealth of literature. Because I am far from an expert in biochemistry I will not discuss the individual studies that compile the mountains of positive evidence for vaccines but will instead look at general plausibility of anti-vaccination claims.
Who are the Anit-Vaxers and Should we Listen?
It might be instructive to take a quick look at who the anti-vaccination people are. Just like any group, there are many subgroups but there are some common traits. Some are suckers for the naturalist fallacy, some are anti-government activists, and some have an affinity for conspiracy theories. Most members of this group have a mistrust of what they call the “medical industrial complex”. I will grant that in the context of the profit based US medical system, there is warrant for healthy skepticism when considering the claims of large for profit drug companies and insurance companies. Where I feel the justification for this skepticism breaks down is when we consider the attitudes toward particular health policies of systems that are not profit driven. Consider that every single country that has some form of nationalized/socialized medicine has a national vaccination program. Coincidence? Not only that, but the WHO (World Health Organization) also recommends vaccines and has mountains of research demonstrating their safety (vs. the risk of not vaccinating).
Lets pause for a second and think. I understand that conspiracy theories are exciting but is it really plausible that every scientist that works for every national healthcare plan and every WHO scientist has been bought out by big pharma to act as their shill? Really? I know what you're thinking...how else can you explain the fact that all these scientists churn out year after year of long term studies demonstrating vaccine efficacy? Um....may I humbly suggest that it might be because the research and its conclusions are valid? Is it really possible that big pharma is paying all these scientists to fudge their research? Lets suppose it's true. Where's the smoking gun? By now at least one disgruntled scientist or spouse of a scientist would have spilled the beans. Ah! I forgot. The media's in on in it too and are covering up the story. Right.
So, lets say you're still not convinced. You poke your finger in my chest and your logical fallacy detector screeches “Argument from authority! Aruga! Aruga!” You are right to point out that an argument from authority is not a good argument but sometime appeal to authority is valid. The argument from authority as a logical fallacy usually only applies when you only appeal to an individual or a small group of “experts” like, say...appealing to an Andrew Wakefield study.
When there is broad consensus amongst a field of experts, this is not an argument from authority; it is prevailing wisdom. A quick example: if your car has a problem and you take it to a hundred mechanics and 99 of them say there's a problem with the regulator but 1 says the problem is with the alternator, which are you going to get fixed? Add to that example that the other 99 mechanics say the lone mechanic is a hack. Who would you listen to? Please don't say that “well what if the 99 mechanics are being paid by the regulator industrial complex and the 1 mechanic is fighting the good fight”. I might have to hurt you.
Lets apply the example to something less controversial (than vaccines, not regulators/alternators) like climate change or evolution. 100% of biologists support evolution and all but one or 2 climate science experts support the idea of anthropogenic climate change. Should we listen to theologists when it comes to evolution? Should we give equal weight to the views of the 1 or 2 dissenting climate scientists? Hopefully not.
To be sure there is disagreement among the experts about interpretation of the data and the details, just as there are matters that are still unsettled. That's why research is ongoing. But none of these experts in their respective fields would deny the main tenants of the overarching theories: That evolution happened/is happening, that there is anthropogenic climate change and that the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks of not being vaccinated.
Ok, so I know what you're thinking. “Science” has been wrong before, and those in the minority view were eventually vindicated. True. Sometimes it happens. But it takes extraordinary evidence to overturn mountains of confirmatory evidence for an overarching theory. And so far that evidence hasn't materialized. As the skeptics say “extraordinary claims demands extraordinary evidence.”
Next post I'll (finally) write about the basic science surrounding the vaccination question)