Shortly after creating a Facebook group that dared to not freak out about vaccinations, we knew that it was only a matter of time before someone came knocking demanding to know “Why aren’t you freaking out about vaccinations? Haven’t you read this?” A statement preceded by a series of sources that we obviously have not read because if we had, there would be no way that we’d still think vaccines are ok.
This group has been an exercise in patience. One of the unfortunate side effects of “teh internetz” is that anyone with even moderate literacy can access out-of-context information, write an impassioned blog about it, and contribute to the spread of panic with very little effort. The result is that people doing research on a controversial topic such as vaccines end up: 1) educated despite the digressions, 2) confused, or 3) deeply passionate about something that is completely wrong.
It is the people in category 3 that we will discuss in detail. Now, we understand that not everyone can be an expert. That was the point of creating the Facebook group in the first place — it was a way for people to consult a rational evidence-based resource and have people available to answer questions about H1N1. But arguing something so very passionately when you are not an expert can lead to some of the following faux pas.
The mistake people make, I think, is that they assume this is a topic with “sides”. They say things like “I think it’s important to present both sides”. (Note: This is a fallacy known as the false dilemma). The truth, however, is not a side. In no way are evidence-based knowledge and ignorant fear mongering equal sides to the same coin that should be equally represented.
Misinformation is notoriously easy to disseminate online and this Facebook group has proven no different. The trouble with being on the side of evidence and scientific consensus is that the burden of proof is suddenly on us to disprove every false claim that gets thrown our way (which is contrary to how logic and science work). One person who kept joining the group (and then apparently quitting after posting such misinformation), Cameron Wigmore, made several comments and accusations endemic to the anti-vaccination “side”, such as these common logical fallacies:
- Appeals (popularity, emotion, etc.): Links to known anti-vaccination propaganda groups.
- Inconsistency, unstated major premise: Comments accusing people of fear-mongering while in the same breath presenting vaccines as weapons of mass destruction.
- Red herring, poisoning the well, slippery slope: Links to irrelevant sources intended to scare people (for example a link with a picture of a child with Eczema Vaccinatum — an extremely rare condition associated with the no longer routinely-administered smallpox vaccine).
- Non sequitur: Comments about energy and climate change.
- Special pleading: Discussions that included phrases like “it’s just the measles!”.
- Ad hominem: “O.K. gang. Pat yourselves on the back and keep up the group think” and “Follow the herd sheeple!” and “I will give up on this closed minded group now and get back to changing minds in person.” etc.
- Argument from authority, ad hominem, special pleading, moving the goalposts: “Of course I have no “evidence”, and I understand that correlation does not prove causation. Most people with vaccine injuries are unable to “prove” it, and most go unreported. What I know is from first hand personal experience. I know what happened. You can dismiss it if you want.”
Small wonder anti-vaccinationists think we’re like this if their thinking includes statements like “it’s just the measles!”. However, wanting to get one’s self and loved ones vaccinated does not make one a “vaccine proponent” any more than owning a car makes one Public Relations Director of Toyota. The point of the group remains to present all information about H1N1 to the public, which includes reports of possible side effects (which are few and far between).
So my only retort to this kind of uncouth behaviour is to say that there is no point in downplaying the impact of illness. We know illness is risky and we have a powerful tool at our disposal to prevent illness from spreading and people from dying. Yes, there are rare side-effects to the vaccine in some people. There are also rare events that happen after vaccines that have nothing to do with the injection that are falsely associated because of their temporal relation. But there are also risks with illness. As the risk of illness far outweighs the risk of the vaccine, and the vaccine risks are rare, the sensible choice is to be vaccinated.