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Over at Sciblogs there’s a lengthy comments thread on vaccination, following an excellent post by Darcy on some myths about vaccines. I hesitate to call the thread a ‘debate’ because, frankly, it’s impossible to actually debate someone who practices what evolutionary biologists would call the ‘Gish gallop’ – firing off so many factoids that you might manage to correct one or two in the time available, but too late! they’ll have already moved on to the next set.

On the other hand, this sort of thing can be educational, on several fronts. First up, there’s the hope that any undecided lurkers might be swayed by your arguments (which is why both sides continue to engage, I guess). But also – what a rich mine of examples of bogus science!

We have: information being presented via the popular media, rather than offered up for peer review. I use ‘popular media’ in the broadest sense to include a range of websites. I’m afraid that using ‘whale.to’ as a source of information to support an argument will immediately win a whole heap of demerit points. There’s a big difference between information that’s been tested and reviewed, and informaton (or mis-information) that simply represents a particular point of view.

We have: conspiracy theories. Oh boy, do we what! On the Skepticon thread one commenter in particular is big on conspiracies. Vaccines are apparently the result of a government/’big pharma’ conspiracy to make us all sick so that the companies can then make even more money selling products to help us get better… For example, our commenter uses the argument from authority in quoting a doctor to support his particular conspiracy-focused view:

’My final conclusion after forty years or more in this business is that the unofficial policy of the World Health Organisation and the unofficial policy of ‘Save the Children’s Fund and almost all those organisations is one of murder and genocide. They want to make it appear as if they are saving these kids, but in actual fact they don’t. I am talking of those at the very top. Beneath that level is another level of doctors and health workers, like myself, who don’t really understand what they are doing. But I cannot see any other possible explanation: It is murder and it is genocide.’

 

… and adds his own coda:

He was obviously referring to the genocidal nature of WHO policy, meaning the WHO is out to kill people — not unsafe needle practices.

 

You actually have to watch out for logical fallacies like the ‘argument from authority’. It’s easy to pull together a list of names, with PhD or MD after them, to support an argument. With the PhDs, in particular, one could well ask, what is their field of expertise? Darcy’s commenter provides such a list: “Dr Eva Snead MD, Dr G Lanctot MD, Dr Kalokerinos, Dr Kris Gaublomme MD, Dr med G Buchwald, Dr J Loibner, Dr H Buttram, Dr R Blaylock MD, Dr R Mendelsohn MD, Dr V Scheibner PhD”.

The last on the list, Dr Scheibner, is a retired palaeontologist ie someone with no expertise in vaccine-related science. Dr Loibner appears to be a homeopathic physician who promotes the use of homeopathic vaccines… (Two others appear to be supporters of rather distasteful attempts to see shaken-baby syndrome reinvented as being the result of vaccinations.) Dr Kalokerinos is the source so approvingly quoted by our commenter (above), which rather makes one wonder about his ability to view evidence dispassionately and – as far as possible – without being biased by his own preconceptions.

(Before anyone jumps in – no, I’m not an expert in vaccine-related science either. Which is why I check credentials like this. I need to know that the information I’m using to come to an informed decision is science-based, & for that I need to know something about who’s providing me with that information. Not all sources are equally reliable in that regard.)

We have: anecdotes, rather than evidence. But unfortunately the plural of anecdote is not data, it’s anecdotes. Humans are pattern-seeking animals & we do have a tendency to see non-existent correlations where in fact we are looking at coincidences. For example, a child may develop a fever a day after receiving a vaccination. But without knowing how many non-vaccinated children also developed a fever on that particular day, it’s not actually possible to say that there’s a causal link between the two.

I’m still waiting on natural laws, & the wisdom of centuries (ancient being every so much better than modern…)