Aug 12 2014

Tocco’s Anti-vaccine Narrative

Part of the scientific approach to knowledge is to integrate information at various levels. It’s important to get the tiny facts correct, but you also have to put those facts into progressively broader and deeper frameworks. Theories are informed by facts which in turn make sense only in the context of the theory.

I try to take this approach with topics on this blog, by not only spending time addressing specific facts but also trying to see the big picture. For example, Mary Tocco, who is an anti-vaccine activist, was recently given space for a guest column on Michigan Live. I will go through and deconstruct her specific claims, but it’s also helpful to view her article in the broader social context.

Tocco is part of Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccination, or MOM (how can you not love “mom”). In her article she writes:

“The authors labeled Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines an anti-vaccine group. Our organization is about protecting parental right to choose whether or not to use vaccines as a method of health care for themselves and their children.”

From this one paragraph we can see many of the threads currently weaving through culture. The big picture is that there is an ideological struggle going on between those who take a science-based worldview and believe that rational regulations should be based on the best science available, and those who wish to promote some other agenda that is not science-based.

Those on the anti-science side of the equation all use similar tactics, which I suspect they learn from each other (partly because there tends to be overlap in anti-scientific groups). One such tactic is to frame the debate as being about rights and freedom, rather than about the science. Therefore we see anti-vaccine groups presenting themselves as being pro-vaccine choice. Promoters of alternative medicine try to erode consumer protections by being for “health care freedom.” Anti-GMO activists present themselves as simply favoring consumer information through mandatory labeling.

It’s better to be for freedom than against science. But make no mistake – these groups only want the freedom to be anti-science.

It also strikes me that these groups typically also promote a narrative that pits parents (moms), children (because we have to think about the children) and consumers generally against corporate greed or government malfeasance. When you scratch the surface, however, they are often promoting one industry over another.

Anti-GMO activists often have a vested interest in promoting the organic food industry. Anti-vaxxers have a huge overlap with those promoting “alternative health.” They are selling something, often a product that is scientifically dubious. From a maximally cynical (but I think justifiable) point of view, the anti-vaccine movement, “natural” health movement, health care freedom movement, and anti-GMO movement are all largely about promoting one industry over a competitor using deceptive marketing. Unfortunately, these tend to be effective marketing campaigns because they target human emotions. They often trade on fear, for example.

Mary Tocco, for example, appears to make her living as a natural health consultant. Regardless, her specific claims are all tired anti-vaccine tropes that have long been debunked. This raises another common theme – anti-science groups are not genuinely engaged with the science or their critics. They have propaganda points that they endlessly repeat, whether or not they are true, and long after they have been completely destroyed in public discourse.

She writes:

We have protected the rights of parents in Michigan since defeating a bill back in September 1995 that would have eliminated the philosophical exemption to vaccinations and are a voice for thousands of parents who support transparent information about the known safety risks of vaccines. MOM encourages informed vaccine decisions and do not tell people how to decide or whether or not to vaccinate.

Philosophical exemption simply means anyone can simply choose not to vaccinate their children and still place them in public school. Keep in mind, vaccines are only mandatory in the US in that children need them to enter public school. Parents can always opt out and either homeschool or send their kids to private school that doesn’t require vaccination.

No one disagrees with medical exemptions from vaccines. Religious exemptions are controversial, and I won’t delve into that topic here. The real issue is, if states allow for any non-medical exemption, how difficult is it to obtain? Philosophical exemptions are all about lowering the bar and making it easy.

Saying that the group “support transparent information about the known safety risks of vaccines,” implies that this is an issue. If you want transparent scientific information about vaccine risks, ask your doctor, or go to the CDC website.  Look up any vaccine and they will list all the known side effects and their incidence right there.

Anti-vaccine groups pay lip service to informed decisions and transparency, but actually they are promoting misinformation and so are actually working against informed consent. They are muddying the waters with nonsense, cherry picking, distortion of facts, and outright lies.

She writes:

The authors claim that Michigan’s unvaccinated rates are a health risk. I have not seen any studies proving that those who are unvaccinated or lacking in all of their vaccines have shown a reduction in health.

Then you have not been looking. I reviewed the literature here. What published studies show is that vaccinated children are different from unvaccinated children in one way – they have fewer vaccine-preventable diseases. That is what vaccines are supposed to do. There are also countless studies looking at individual vaccines, showing that they reduce the risk of contracting the disease they are meant to prevent.

She goes on:

It is a fact that when a child recovers from these infectious illness, they obtain life-long immunity as a benefit.

This is a distortion. Not all infections produce life-long immunity. Length of immunity varies. The same is true for vaccination – length of immunity varies. Researchers track how long the immunity from vaccines last, and schedule booster shots accordingly.

Sometimes immunity from surviving the disease lasts longer than the vaccine, because the length and intensity of exposure to antigens is greater, but at what cost? Vaccine-preventable infections are not all benign. Many can cause serious permanent harm or even death. If nothing else, who wants to be miserably sick for weeks. The whole point of vaccines is to trigger immunity without the disease. If you take a risk vs benefit approach, the benefit of vaccines vastly outweighs the risk, perhaps by more than any other medical intervention.

She digs in:

The science “is not settled” on vaccine safety or efficacy.

This is a lie. The science is absolutely settled. Vaccines are safe and effective. “Safe” does not mean zero risk – life does not come with zero risk, ever. It means they are relatively safe, and that benefit outweighs risk.

As evidence to support her misinformation she writes:

The United States Vaccine Court has settled over 85 cases where children are injured with neurological injuries from vaccines since 2000.

This is another distortion. The vaccine court does not determine if vaccines caused the reported injuries. They only determine if compensation is appropriate, based on their rules which are designed to favor the claimant. They err way on the side of compensating sick children, and they don’t force them to prove cause and effect. This is, therefore, not a good line of evidence that vaccines cause harm.

And of course, no one denies that rare (on the order of magnitude of one in a million) cases of vaccine serious side effects do occur.

If Tocco is going to cite the vaccine court, however, then she should note that the court did make a ruling on the association of vaccines and autism, hearing the best cases the anti-vaccine crowd had to offer, and rejected their claims. 

She continues:

As I travel the country speaking with parents, the #1 concern is vaccine ingredients. Many are not meant to eat and yet we inject them via vaccination!

This is naked fearmongering with the “toxin gambit.” David Gorski has deconstructed this myth many times. 


Tocco’s article is a Gish Gallop of fearmongering, misdirection, and misinformation. As you can see, many sentences require full articles to deconstruct.

She is not, in my opinion, being an honest broker of science-based information. She is selling a narrative, one that is crafted to resonate with common fears and concerns of most people. She is marketing an anti-scientific alternative health ideology, one that is highly profitable and is threatened by accurate scientific information.

The anti-vaccine movement cannot win in the arena of science. In fact, they have already lost. So they are desperately trying to change the venue by framing the narrative as one about freedom, choice, and transparency. Ironically they are doing this with misinformation that detracts from transparency and freedom of choice.

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