The Amazing Stubbornness of a Vaccine Anecdote
by Eric Hall
July 7, 2015
Jim Carrey posted on Facebook in response to California's new, tighter vaccine-exemption law.Yes, yes: my usual story. I spent way too much time on social media fighting with the anti-science crowd. It's always a difficult balance, since I have a few projects with looming deadlines, yet I feel obligated to see a thread to its conclusion in the hope that someone on the fence will see my reasonable approach and be persuaded into the science camp. This is exactly what happened to me on the anti-vaccine rant
I'm not going to discuss the safety or efficacy of vaccines here. That's covered thoroughly by every skeptic website, including this one (or check out Skeptoid episode 55, which specifically addresses Carrey's concern about mercury). Vaccines have about the best benefit-to-risk ratio of anything we do in life. What I am going to do is provide a narrative of our discourse as a way to document the usual path of these discussions.
What still amazes me is the ability for an anecdote to influence so many people. One particular comment thread got exceptionally long when a parent said her child started having seizures a couple of days after getting a set of vaccines. I started with an innocuous anecdote from Paul Offit to counter her anecdote. I've quoted it before, but just to refresh everyone's memory:
Paul Offit likes to tell a story about how his wife, pediatrician Bonnie Offit, was about to give a child a vaccination when the kid was struck by a seizure. Had she given the injection a minute sooner, Paul Offit says, it would surely have appeared as though the vaccine had caused the seizure and probably no study in the world would have convinced the parent otherwise.The mother's response was that her doctors told her that her son was injured by the recent vaccines. I asked for the doctor's information, as usually anti-vaccine people back down from their claims when they realize they've been caught in a lie. However, she happily provided the information for three doctors. I was able to find contact information for two of them. One, a pediatric neurologist, responded to my email within a couple of hours. I asked if he had ever diagnosed a vaccine injury and if he had recommend not getting vaccines as one of his patient's parents had suggested. His response was that neither of those statements were true.
Please note: I did identify myself in my capacity as a Skeptoid contributor, and indicated I might write about it, and I therefore feel confident in disclosing this information. I didn't ask him about a specific case as he wouldn't be able to provide such confidential information. But it was clear he had never diagnosed a vaccine injury.
After relaying this exchange in the thread, the mother asked for proof. I had other things going on, so my response of a screenshot came a few hours later. The parent accused me of fabricating the email because of the time it took to produce the screenshot. I suggested that she contact the pediatric neurologist herself and offered that I could send her the header information if she felt it necessary. At this point she accused me of harassment and told me further contact with her child's doctors would result in legal action. I'm not too worried about that, but I will respect her wishes as not to cause distress.
Another person commented that she was impressed with my knowledge but that I should back off, with the understanding that this parent and I would never come to an agreement and the intimation that perhaps I'm on a witch hunt against anti-vaccine parents. I agree that it is a difficult balance. I don't blame this parent for being emotional. But that's why I think the discourse is important, because they're seeing things through a very skewed filter. That filter, paired with an emotional anecdote, can have a powerful influence on other people. I responded to the parent:
I am not saying you are lying. Science is well aware of how the brain constructs a narrative, thus memory is a difficult thing to trust, especially in emotional situations. Thus, science is more important in being a neutral observer, so we get things right. If vaccines were injuring hundreds of kids, we would want to reevaluate the risk versus benefit. The evidence shows the benefit outweighs risk many fold. This is important. Should we try to further reduce the risk of all medical procedures? Yes. Should we use anecdotes to make those decisions? No.It is amazing what narratives we can construct. What happened next shows how powerful these anti-vaccine stories can be.
The parent said that for most people, vaccines do not cause any problems. But she said 5-10% experience seizures, brain damage, hearing loss, and developmental delays. This is very far from the truth. However, she hedged against counter information by saying she wouldn't trust anything from the Centers for Disease Control because they are "for profit."
I compared the odds of vaccine injury to the odds of winning the lottery. Both are extremely unlikely, yet a few dozen people do win large lottery jackpots every year. This is a bit of a cold comparison, but it is the only thing I can think of that has readily comparable odds. I also pointed out that claiming the CDC is for profit is outright false. When she tells people to "do their research" but not trust the CDC, she is automatically setting people on a path more likely to lead to nonsense websites. While the CDC isn't the only source of good information on vaccines, she in a sense poisons the well in telling people not to trust the information there.
I asked for proof of this for-profit status. Her response was that they are listed on the website of Dun & Bradstreet, a firm that compiles and sells business data. I went to check it out. Here's what I found:
Her counter was that because the CDC is listed as "traded" it is automatically a for-profit company. I tried to explain how databases work and that the field was named poorly and is simply an AKA field. That didn't work. So I went a little further. I pulled up a local parish Catholic church in New York that had an AKA. She ranted about the required donation for each of her kids to get baptized and how it made her believe the church is also for-profit.
I will digress just for a moment... I didn't confront her on the need to "cure" her five children of the original sin. I resisted the temptation to use that as an example. Yes—pat me on the back!
So I pulled another example. There is a small, independent public radio station in northern Minnesota, which is very much non-profit. It is a great community asset, but even if it were a for-profit station it would certainly be far from a big money maker. I pointed out this station to her on the D&B site:
This still wasn't convincing.
She tried to further her "evidence" by stating the CDC owns a patent on Ebola and that is proof of a profit motive. She claimed that every time someone is treated for Ebola, they make millions of dollars. I pointed out there was no evidence for that in the HHS financial reports. Also, patents are not an uncommon practice for the CDC, as indicated in this International Business Times article:
Through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. government often seeks patents on viruses and their genetic material in an effort to research the diseases safely. If awarded a patent, the agency would make the material available for public use, which private companies aren't as likely to do.She continued on with her insistence that the CDC is for-profit. She also pointed out some recent news about Dong Pyou Han, a university researcher who this parent claimed worked for the CDC. Han did not. He worked for a couple different universities, researching an HIV vaccine, and he falsified his results to gain more funding from the National Institute of Health. And guess what? He got caught. This isn't evidence of a nefarious plot; it is evidence science works. Others couldn't replicate the results, and suspicions rose. It didn't have anything to do with the CDC. To me, this shows how the built-in error-checking mechanisms in science work. Whether accidental errors, bias, or purposeful manipulation, science finds a way to correct itself. This is why vaccines spend years in development: to be sure they are safe and effective.
My hope is that in carrying myself in a reasonable, logical manner, that someone unsure what to believe might avoid being swayed by an emotional anecdote, following the evidence instead. I want to make a habit of recording this discourse more often to serve as a learning tool for me, and hopefully provide resources for others trying to promote scientific literacy and reason.
I can't imagine the heartache of watching your own child fall ill and have no idea if they will recover. It's a difficult balance to play in trying to that her experience is uncommon, and even less likely to be because of a vaccine, and to simultaneously express deep compassion. Sometimes kids get sick. In fact, many more used to get sick, injured, or even die from things link the measles. (N.b.: in the 10 years before the measles vaccine, the disease averaged almost 500 deaths and 4,000+ cases of encephalitis each year, along with hearing loss and other permanent injuries.) It is possible this parent did have a child injured by a vaccine. But the cost to kids in the future of not vaccinating will be much higher.
by Eric Hall
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit