An open letter to my dad on the occasion of his recent anti-vax Facebook postings

Subject: An open letter to my dad on the occasion of his recent anti-vax Facebook postings
From: Tara
Date: 17 Jun 2015

Dear Pa,

I know you care deeply about many issues, especially social justice. You’re tired of wars, you’re ashamed of the attempts to destroy social programs in this country, you hate seeing the unions that helped you as a worker provide for our family get dismantled by wealthy CEOs whose only goal is to make themselves and their cronies more wealthy. These are noble things to believe in, and values that you’ve instilled in your children.

But you probably don’t often consider how you select and digest (and frequently, share on Facebook) the stories that you’ll accept as true. This is called cognitive bias – sorry, that’s a terrible article for a layman, but I’d be happy to discuss next time I’m home. Anyway, the bottom line is that the beliefs you already hold prime you to accept certain types of information, and reject others–and it’s something everyone should be aware of when reading anything on the Internet, especially. You don’t investigate how the authors of articles and videos you read and view came to their conclusions, or what data they may have overlooked (I’m being generous here–in most of the things you post, it’s not a matter of “overlooking” contradictory evidence on the case of the authors, it’s flat-out denial that it even exists). And you’re not an expert on health issues like fluoride or vaccines, so I don’t expect you to go back to the journal articles and try to figure out if these people you’re listening to are telling the truth. That’s what I do, but it took years of training to get me to this point, as you probably remember.

You repeatedly caution, “follow the money.” Often this is the case, and no one disagrees that many times people or companies do some nasty shit in the name of profit. However, you have to look at this on a case-by-case basis. Let’s look at vaccines, for instance. Sure, pharmaceutical companies make money off of vaccines. However, this money is a fraction of what they make for drugs that treat chronic conditions or “lifestyle” medicines, like cholesterol meds and Viagra. Indeed, many pharmaceutical companies have gotten out of the vaccine game altogether because it’s not particularly profitable, and because of lawsuits directed against them (which, in most cases, aren’t based in science but on fear and misunderstanding of cause and effect). This leaves us with fewer and fewer options when we need new vaccines quickly, like for the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.

So, we’re agreed that vaccines are potential money-makers for pharmaceutical companies (though, comparatively, not a lot). Let’s look now at those who started the most recent iteration of vaccine panic, including Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield is the British doctor whose study first drew an association between the measles/mumps/rubella (“MMR”) vaccine and autism. Except, first of all, it really didn’t if you look at the original article. And, you might note that article has a big “RETRACTED” notice at the top. This means that the journal took away its support of the paper–it shows that it never should have been published. That’s because, for that study and several others, Wakefield lied about data, unethically recruited test subjects, and/or just outright made shit up. Why might he do this? Well, a British lawyer had paid him to find evidence of this connection between MMR and autism, so that the lawyer could sue on behalf of the parents. Oh, and did I mention that Wakefield stood to make money for a replacement for the MMR vaccine as well? Follow the money indeed–though in this case, it didn’t lead to the pharmaceutical companies. Wakefield was tried in England and stripped of his medical license, but has since moved to the United States and still spreads misinformation about vaccines.

What about other anti-vaccine players? Jenny McCarthy has made millions selling books about how she “cured” her son Evan of his autism. Joseph Mercola makes millions selling dietary supplements (untested and largely unregulated, by the way), and lives in a two million dollar mansion. I know you’ve criticized creationists; well, these people are the creationists of the medical field. They distort, they cherry-pick their evidence, and they cause the public to lose confidence in credentialed scientists because of their writings. Credentialed scientists like myself, who carry out the vast majority of this research but certainly don’t live in million-dollar homes.

And you’re helping the Mercolas of the world–every time you post something like your “Italian court rules MMR vaccine causes autism” picture. Guess what “evidence” that court used? Andrew Wakefield’s discredited study. In science, this is an error even a first-year PhD student would be embarrassed to make. Not surprisingly, the decision is being appealed. But in the meantime, every parent who (wrongly and unscientifically) believes that vaccines caused their child’s autism is being buoyed by this court, whose decision is being trumpeted by people like Mercola and Mike Adams at Natural News (another supplement-pusher like Mercola, with no medical expertise or training). Every time someone buys into their anti-vaccine line and chooses to buy their supplements instead of vaccinating their child, it puts other children in danger. And you’re helping them.

Know the results of this vaccine backlash? Research dollars are diverted away from real causes of autism and other conditions. And kids are dying. Just in the U.S., there have been more than 1000 vaccine-preventable deaths in the last 6 years, and over 100,000 vaccine-preventable illnesses. Freaking whooping cough has made a huge comeback in the U.S. A big reason for the resurgence of these diseases is because anti-vaccine myths and scares spread so easily between acquaintances–in person, and on social media; scares that you’re now perpetuating with your own posts. Sure, it’s a free country and you have every right to share these pictures and memes, but have you thought about the possible harm it might do to others when you click “share”?

I know how crazy it drives you when Republican politicians (and friends and relatives) post pictures and stories that are flat-out wrong, about the deficit, the economy, “Obamacare,” and more. It makes you nuts how uncritically they quote Fox News. They don’t examine their own biases; they don’t stop and think why they accept that Obama is the anti-Christ and that everything associated with him is evil, even if the facts clearly contradict their belief. Sure, they may know a lot, but it’s all from the same sources and it reinforces their pre-existing belief that Obama is Satan. Here’s the kicker: you’re doing the same thing. Yes, I know you’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos on vaccines, and fluoride, and other health issues, but the ones you watch–and accept–are the ones that already appeal to the beliefs you’ve accepted. This isn’t how science works, or how evidence is fairly weighed. I know this can get messy, because again, you’re not one of those trained scientists and you don’t know how to navigate the literature and determine which studies are well-conducted and which ones are crap. So sometimes, you have to accept that there are people out there who have taken the time to do this in an unbiased fashion, and decide to trust them (y’know, people like your daughter, perhaps? Or thousands of other scientists and journalists who have studied these fields for many, many years?), and look skeptically upon people like Mercola et. al. (Follow the money!)

I will be sending along some books I hope you’ll read with an open mind: The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin, and Deadly Choices by Paul Offit. Both come into this from different backgrounds – Mnookin is a journalist and new parent who was investigating vaccines, while Offit is a research scientist like myself who has worked in vaccines and infectious diseases his whole life. Both come to the same conclusions: vaccines are safe, and critical for public health. And before you Google "Offit" and find that he holds a vaccine patent, ask yourself – if I were to work on a vaccine at some point in my career, would you dismiss my authority and expertise for that reason? Or would you be willing to look at the science behind it before making a judgement?

Next discussion: the Illuminati. Baby steps.