Jan 16 2020

Anti-Vaxxers Strike Back

This is going to be a long struggle, perhaps endless. Antivaxxers have been around since there have been vaccines, for over two hundred years, so there is no reason to expect they are going anywhere. Rather, we need an equally permanent anti-antivaxxer movement (otherwise known as the skeptical movement).

After the Disneyland measles outbreak, there has been political pressure to push back against antivaxxers and strengthen our vaccine requirements. This resulted, for example, in SB277 in California, a law to remove personal beliefs as a reason for vaccine exemption. The return of measles in the last few years (1,282 cases in 2019 in the US, more than 140,000 worldwide) has fueled similar push back. But the antivaxxers have not taken this lying down. They are now fired up to defend their debunked conspiracy theories and pseudoscience at the expense of public health.

A recent clash in New Jersey shows the intensity on both sides. Bill S2173 narrowly failed in the senate amid vocal protests by the antivaxxers. The bill would have removed religious exemptions for vaccine requirements for schools and daycare. In order to save the bill, proponents amended it to apply only to public schools, but this only cost more support as some senators correctly pointed out this will only concentrate the unvaccinated in private schools and result in more outbreaks. Proponents of the bill vow to revise it and try again.

It’s clear that there is now intensity on both sides. One side, however, is completely wrong, something I rarely say but there are issues where this is clearly true. Antivaxxers claim, falsely, that vaccines don’t work, they cause more harm than good, they are linked to autism and other serious complications, and even that there is a corporate-government conspiracy to hide these facts. Debunking these claims will take many many articles, but fortunately I and my colleagues have already written them. You can look through here and also here for articles addressing pretty much every antivaxxer claim. But it is an unfortunate reality that there is always an asymmetry in these cases, because it takes much more time and effort to debunk a false claim than to make it in the first place.

What is clear is that the effort to support vaccines, to address the false claims of antivaxxers and to marginalize them so that they do not compromise community immunity, needs many allies. Science communicators cannot do this alone. As we saw in New Jersey, we also need activists willing to come out to promote science-friendly legislation. We need the broader community to write letters to legislators. We also need legislators who are scientifically literate enough to recognize the right thing to do, and with the political courage to actually do it.

The strategy of the antivaxxers is not to make a compelling case backed by logic and evidence. They can’t do that, because they are objectively wrong on the facts. Their strategy is to be the loudest voice, and unfortunately this has some effect. It appears to have won the day in New Jersey.

They also have another strategy, one they share with the anti-GMO crowd, which often overlaps considerably with antivaxxers. They are using FOIA requests to harass science communicators at public universities. I have a lot of personal information about this (from my colleagues – I have been lucky) that I am not currently at liberty to discuss, but in at least one case a great science communicator was effectively silenced by this harassment. The strategy is to flood the university with FOIA requests for e-mails or other documents regarding the science communicator. This has two main effects. The first is that it costs a lot of time and money for the university. This makes them very unhappy. Further, the exercise is a fishing expedition to find snippets of e-mails they can take out of context to further harass the science communicator.

What this means is that universities need to stand strong in the face of deliberate harassment by anti-scientists to protect their professors who are trying to communicate science to the public in controversial areas (where it is most needed). In my experience, this is highly variable. Sometimes university administrators understand their role and defend their scientists. Other times they show moral cowardice, or may in fact be ideologically aligned to some extent with the anti-science side, and they collapse.

The effort to defend proper science in public policy requires everyone to do their job – scientists, universities and other scholarly institutions, politicians, and journalists. It means everyone needs to have a working knowledge of pseudoscience, conspiracy thinking, and science denial. It also requires dedicated activists continuing to advocate for and organize push back against the anti-scientists. All of this requires an informed public with reasonable critical thinking skills. It always comes back to that. In order for a forest to be green, all the trees need to be green. We cannot expect to have the political will to defend science in a society that is scientifically and metacognitively illiterate.

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