There are times that items I find online irk me. Such is the case with a blog post by Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy blog that is run through the Discover magazine website. According to Plait’s bio, “He is a skeptic, and fights misuses of science as well as praising the wonder of real science.”
While I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a scientist, I follow various scientific topics with avid interest. I can, in turn, be both gullible and skeptical, hopefully more of the latter than the former, but I’m willing to admit that I’m human and I can be taken in periodically. Hardcore skeptics, I’ve noticed, tend to want to paint those who disagree with them as being overly emotional and illogical – in other words, not like them – and will quickly dismiss anything their adversaries say. After all, they have Hard Science to back up their arguments.
Such is the case with Plait, who has posted several times about childhood vaccinations. The blog post that inspired me to write this is called Fight harder for vaccination! and in it, Plait says that model and actress “Jenny McCarthy is a walking antiscience disaster of the first order,” because she claims that vaccinations caused her son’s autism and by changing his diet, she cured him. Plait goes on to say that McCarthy is “a major public health threat.”
In several posts he’s done on the topic of vaccinations, Plait has called antivaxxers liars, antiscience, and “the Number One health hazard in America“. Further, he states, “Antivaxxers are not basing their conclusions on reason; it is a religious belief with them.”
While Plait is quick to negate antivaxxers with strong language, what I’m seeing in his posts is that he is just as emotional as the people on the other side of his arguments. In fact, his forcefulness on the topic comes across as the same sort of “religious belief” that he accuses the antivaxxers of.
What I’m not seeing in Plait’s posts is evidence that he has talked in-depth with any antivaxxers from the standpoint of a true scientist, without his own preconceived notions getting in the way. In short, he’s not asking them any questions.
If I were a scientist, here are some of the questions I’d be asking:
Why do antivaxxers continue to believe there is a connection between autism and vaccinations?
What sources are antivaxxers using to come to their conclusions?
What caused antivaxxers to come to the belief that vaccinations are dangerous? (While many scientists downplay the importance of case studies, they can give scientists insight into what they are trying to study.)
What role have health care providers played in parents’ decision not to immunize?
Are antivaxxers truly antiscience, or are they pro-science, but can’t get their lingering questions about vaccinations answered to their satisfaction?
From the standpoint of a parent, here are the lingering questions I’d ask of scientists:
If vaccinations wear off, and most adults don’t keep up with booster shots, why aren’t we seeing outbreaks of diseases among adults? (Or are we?) How does herd immunity truly work?
What are the effects of multiple vaccinations on the human body? Each supposedly gets tested on its own, but are they ever tested to see how they interact with each other?
What are the side effects of each vaccination? Who is most susceptible to these side effects? Children with a particular genetic disposition? Highly allergic children? Are side effects properly reported?
For whom are vaccinations contraindicated? Are doctors or pubic health workers knowledgeable enough to know when a vaccination shouldn’t be given?
How long does each vaccination get tested before it is added to the regimen of other required vaccinations?
Can vaccinations, in concert with particular environmental factors, trigger ill effects in the human body?
At what point do we decide that we’re vaccinating too much? (In other words, how many vaccinations are too many?) And why are we vaccinating everyone for relatively minor diseases (i.e. chicken pox)?
Vaccination is a medical procedure. Given this, why aren’t vaccination schedules tailored to the individual?
Antivaxxers want to be heard, not shouted at and called names. While Plait may not want to listen, someone does. In Ashland, Oregon, parents are being paid to talk to government health officials about why they don’t want to vaccinate their children. Ashland has the distinction of having one of the highest rates of vaccination exemptions in the country. Because they are choosing this route, the community would make a great control group against which to compare those who are getting immunizations. Instead of dismissing antivaxxers, we need to engage them.