Anti-vaccine, anti-Science?

A recent article in the New York Times indicates that the anti-vaccinators are taking advantage of the H1N1 epidemic to sow fear of vaccination in the population. With 292 deaths so far this year from the H1N1 virus (32% children) you would think parents would take no chances. In contrast consider the number of deaths deaths from the vaccine itself:0.

The risk of serious side effects from the vaccine is virtually non-existent, whereas it is certain that many people that are not vaccinated will die.

Why the protest then? Certainly there are many who simply do not have good information and feed their fears with internet rumors. Sadly, though, the article suggests a for profit motive. “Vitamin vendors — who in some cases operate blogs, with postings by people who claim to be doctors finding fault with vaccines — are reporting an increase in sales related to swine flu.”

And when it comes to denying scientific evidence, it is not only vaccines.

Take pesticide related poisonings for example. Each year the World Health Organization estimates that 3 million people will suffer pesticide poisoning, resulting in over 200,000 deaths.

In Arizona, the use of genetically engineered cotton carrying BT has cut farmers use of pesticides in half. Bt crops also have clear benefits in enhancing insect biodiversity.

The number of people harmed by GE crops over since planting began over 10 years ago? 0.

We need a better way to educate the public about the risks and benefits of scientific technology.

Comments

  1. #1 Michael Simpson
    November 7, 2009

    The anti-science crowd is going to be the death of us all. Or something like that. The risk of death from H1N1 is growing as more data is compiled. The overall risk of a major side effect from flu vaccine is probably around 1/100,000 (from GBS). And even that link hasn’t been established scientifically.

  2. #2 Prometheus
    November 4, 2009

    Once again the debate becomes an exercise in shifting goal posts.

    The Coelacanth+Cantaloupe+the late Billy Barty=Coelantalopette A.K.A. freeze proof fun-size deliciousness resistant to four atmospheres before implosion, is not the subject of either debate or research and development at this time.

    Many GMO propositions have been crops that were treated with the biochemical sought through engineering since Methuselah was in junior high. Either the plant encompassing the desired trait has been used as a proximity barrier or the microbe/plant expressing the desired trait’s effective chemical component has been applied to the target crop for decades.

    B. thuringiensis spore pesticide is just one example of this.

  3. #3 Ewan R
    November 4, 2009

    I guess following that line of arguement that essentially anti-vax and (to a lesser extent)anti-GM equates simply to hyper selfish dressed up in a weird hat – “I refuse to take a miniscule risk of something mildly unpleasant which will reduce a very real risk of something vastly unpleasant for a lot more people”

  4. #4 Pam Ronald
    November 3, 2009

    But is 250,000 enough? And so it goes on…

  5. #5 Ewan R
    November 3, 2009

    Chris P #10

    So how long exactly do we wait until we can call GE plants safe? 20 years? 100 years?

    I’d say that with 10 years of usage with no adverse effects, 10 years of safety studies with no significant adverse effects (which admittedly isnt mentioned in the blog, but isnt exactly a secret) which then contrasts with a 50% reduction in pesticide use (which the UN estimates kills 200,000) – if this could be applied globally and if the reduction gave (and lets err on the side of caution here) a 25% reduction in the number of deaths due to pesticide use – 250,000 people over 10 years could be saved by the use of GE plants, contrasting with 0 people dying (or indeed suffering any ill effects) as a result of the GE plants in the same time period – which I think more than justifies the infinitesimal risk involved in their use – and equally justifies calling them safe.

  6. #6 Audrey, age 8
    November 3, 2009

    I had the swine flu and was lucky I didn’t die.I didn’t get the vaccine because it wasn’t here yet.But I’m kinda glad because I don’t like getting shots anyway

  7. #7 Pam Ronald
    November 3, 2009

    Thanks Mary. I just ordered Specter’s book and look forward to reading it.

  8. #8 Mary
    November 2, 2009

    FYI, for people interested in this topic there was an interview on NPR this weekend:

    The Fear Factor

    “Is our fear of biotechnology impeding the scientific progress we once revered? Michael Specter thinks so. In his new book Denialism, Specter says irrational thinking has led the opposition of vaccines and genetically modified food. The internet and the news media aren’t helping either.”

    And I encourage supporters of evidence and science to comment over there. You can imagine what it looks like…

  9. #9 PalMD
    October 30, 2009

    When it comes to vaccines, a very vocal activist community has been out there spreading fears and lies. They are not some small, benign sect of wackos. They are organized and malignant. They know exactly how to play on the fears of parents, turning real risk analysis upside down.

    Individual parents are not to blame, but those who are part of this movement—especially doctors and scientists—are immoral quasi-cultists and are a threat to public health.

  10. #10 David Hooks
    October 29, 2009

    @ Chris

    GM crops are tested and are only approved for use once they have been shown to pose negligible risk to consumers. GM crops get tested for allergenicity, toxicity (short and long term), nutritional value, potential pollen spread, and weediness. It takes years to get a new GM crop approved for use in agriculture – what other tests do you want? Or would you rather that we didn’t make use of GM crops or plastics for that matter?

  11. #11 Chris P
    October 29, 2009

    I’m sorry, but saying that GE crops are safe because nobody has yet been identified as dying from them doesn’t cut it. Are you waiting until there is a mass epidemic?

    Plenty of advances like GE have unintended consequences. Many take a few decades to appear. Plastics were invented in the 1930′s – who then would have anticipated the plastic “mat” in the Pacific?

    I am always suspicious or “rah rah”.

  12. #12 Pam Ronald
    October 28, 2009

    This is very interesting and encouraging. Thanks for the link (and the kinds words) Mary.

    The fat lawyer joke is great.

    I need some training

    signed,
    a naive scientist

  13. #13 Mary
    October 28, 2009

    Yeah, I was just listening to NPR–and that journalist who wrote the vaccination article in Wired (discussed widely here) was on. http://www.wbur.org/news/npr/114249382

    She was talking about this:

    She says tactics such as these dissuade many scientists from taking a stand in the debate. She says it is important to speak out against such tactics…

    She said more in the story, but I’ll have to get the full quote later.

    Similar tactics on GE plants, but more active damage and destruction to labs and fields.

    Scientists have been standing aside for too long–hoping our data will speak for us–and we have lost ground to internet drama and mythology. We need to be more active on the blogs (and not just the ones where we speak to the choir), locally, and in the media.

    Pam’s becoming my favorite evangelist for this :)

  14. #14 James
    October 28, 2009

    Prometheus wrote:

    The accusation is an interlocutory gambit used in this context as a thumbnail wedge strategy. Since scientists are not trained in legal debate they fall for the accusation that rectitude is a form of rudeness.

    When a scientist becomes an expert witness overcoming the “civility” gambit is the first stage in their forensics training.< \blockquote>

    I’d never thought about it that way before, but you’re absolutely right. On both evolution and GMOs I definitely try to understate my certainty to avoid appearing rude. I’ll have to pay close attention to not falling into that habit anymore.

  15. #15 Prometheus
    October 28, 2009

    Pam Ronald wrote:

    “Often I see that scientists are called arrogant even when they are quite polite and patient.”

    The accusation is an interlocutory gambit used in this context as a thumbnail wedge strategy. Since scientists are not trained in legal debate they fall for the accusation that rectitude is a form of rudeness.

    When a scientist becomes an expert witness overcoming the “civility” gambit is the first stage in their forensics training.

    Never appease the accuser. Put the accusation in context.

    Fat Lawyer: “Are you Professor X WHO has conducted ONLY 20 fire investigations telling me that Fire Marshal Y who has conducted 900 fire investigations is WRONG about the origin of this fire.”

    Professor X: “Yes.”

    Fat Lawyer: “Isn’t that ARROGANT *sneer* for somebody who has only conducted 20 forensic fire investigations?”

    Professor X: “Michelangelo only painted one ceiling.”

    It is a sucker bet. There are as many sucker bets as there are suckers and if Barnum is to be believed there is one born every minute. You can’t track them all but you can know when you see one.

    “One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider.”

  16. #16 Pam Ronald
    October 27, 2009

    Yes. Education is the key and we can all try to do our part without seeming arrogant. Often I see that scientists are called arrogant even when they are quite polite and patient. Even if you have heard an outlandish claim before, we must still listen carefully to be sure that the worrier knows that we get what they are saying.

  17. #17 Pam Ronald
    October 27, 2009

    Yes. Education is the key and we can all try to do our part without seeming arrogant. Often I see that scientists are called arrogant even when they are quite polite and patient. Even if you have heard an outlandish claim before, we must still listen carefully to be sure that the worrier knows that we get what they are saying.

  18. #18 Thanh
    October 27, 2009

    I don’t blame them for not trusting science. We are dealing with a battle with multiple opponents. Hippies and religious extremists are always spreading misconceptions about science. We still even having problems with people upholding creationism, about 50% of Americans or so if you sample polls. My only concern is that these people have voting power and they can democratically influence political landscapes by electing leaders who do not favor biotechnology.

    “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
    -Franklin D. Roosevelt

  19. #19 Hinemoana
    October 27, 2009

    People are misled all the time, and its frustrating. I get the impression that its mainly because they dont know here to get information they can trust on subjects… so they get it from people they trust who often have no idea themselves.
    My friends and family often come to me with questions about vaccines, nutrition, illness, sanitation, and GE… anything vaguely to do with biology. And I’m only doing a Masters in plant science! I am often nervous about trying to educate someone on a subject outside of my speciality, but then I get a flash of them looking at a greenpeace website or something. Luckily, I mainly just have to debunk common mythconseptions.

  20. #20 David Hooks
    October 27, 2009

    It seems to me that science begins where common sense ends – and this is the root cause of a lot of these ‘anti-science’ problems. When I talk to people who appear to be woefully ignorant on the subject of vaccines the claims are that MMR vaccine causes autism or DTP vaccine is ineffective. In these cases we can just look at historical data to find the answer and the anti-vax’er can choose to remain ignorant or not.

    But I’ve also had conversations about vaccines with people who are intelligent (at least in other areas) and the problem is that they rely on common sense to give them the answer because they don’t know a whole lot about vaccination. Their argument goes: ‘everybody knows’ that a new medicine takes years to get regulatory approval saying that it is safe, but the swine ‘flu vaccine was ready too quickly to have been properly tested. If it hasn’t been properly tested then we can’t know that it is safe. What they don’t realise is that the swine ‘flu vaccine was made in exactly the same way as every other seasonal ‘flu shot they’ve ever been given. The process produces a very safe vaccine that contains only killed virus particles and there is very little risk of any complications arising from vaccination.

    In terms of education? Teach critical evaluation of all ideas and that common sense is only useful in understanding things that are common. If you want to understand something more complex it’s going to take a bit more effort.

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