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Anti-vaccers, climate change deniers, and anti-GMO activists are all the same

Posted on 31 May 2017 by Guest Author

I imagine that quite a few people were upset by the title for this post, so let me explain what I mean, and please hear me out before you sharpen your pitchforks. The arguments used by all three of these groups, and indeed by science deniers more generally, are all fundamentally the same. In other words, the underlying logical structure is identical for the arguments used in support of all three of these positions. Thus, it is logically inconsistent to criticize one of these positions while embracing another.

You see, what I have observed over the past few years of blogging is that very few people like to think of themselves as “anti-science” or as a “science denier.” Those people certainly exist, and I do encounter them, but most of the people who visit my blog/page claim to love science…at least until it disagrees with their ideology. This puts them in a difficult position, because when a scientific result conflicts with their beliefs, they have to find some excuse or justification for why they don’t accept the results of science on that particular topic, and what I see over and over again is that everyone falls back on exactly the same excuses, regardless of what anti-science position they are trying to defend. For example, on several occasions, I have seen people criticize anti-vaccers for appealing to the authority of a few fringe “experts.” Then, a few threads later, I see those same people appealing to the authority of a few fringe experts on topics like climate change and GMOs. Similarly, I see people ridicule climate change deniers for thinking that all climatologists have been bought off, but when the topic shifts to GMOs, suddenly those same people start claiming that Monsanto has bought off all of the world’s genetic engineers/food scientists. Do you see what I am getting it? You can’t criticize someone for using a particular line of reasoning, then turn around and use that same line of reasoning to support your own particular form of science denial. That’s not logically consistent, and it’s not how science operates. Science is a method. It either works or it doesn’t, and you can’t cherry-pick when to accept it.

I suspect that people are becoming more upset with me, rather than less upset, so if you are currently unhappy with me, then I want you to stop and carefully think about this before you read any further. I’m not attacking you, I’m not even ridiculing you, but I am trying to help you think rationally and consistently. If you truly love science, rather than simply liking it when it agrees with your preconceptions, then you should hear me out. You should take a good look at the arguments and examples that I am going to present, and you should make sure that you are actually being rational and logically consistent. I also want to clarify that I don’t think people who believe these views are unintelligent or even consciously denying science. As I’ve previously discussed, I used to be a creationist and a climate change denier, so I know first-hand just how easy it is for ideology to cloud your judgement and make you think that you are being rational, when you are actually just denying reality.

anti-vaccers anti-vaxxers all the same science denial cliamte change global warming GMOs

It’s not about the evidence

Before I go any further, I need to make it explicitly clear that none of these positions exist because of any actual scientific evidence supporting them. In every case, they are soundly defeated by a veritable mountain of consistent scientific results. On GMOs, for example, over 1,700 studies have been conducted, and they failed to find any evidence that GMOs are worse than traditional crops for either human health or the environment, and in some cases, they are better (Nicolia et al. 2013; also see Sanvido et al. 2006Snell et al. 2012Van Eenennaam and Young. 2014, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine report 2016). This is, of course, also the conclusion that nearly 300 scientific organizations reached after reviewing the data.

Climate change is the same story. Because of carbon isotopes, we know that we have greatly increased the COin the atmosphere (Bohm et al. 2002Ghosh and Brand 2003Wei et al. 2009), and thanks to satellite measurements, we know that our CO2 is increasing the amount of heat energy that the earth’s atmosphere traps (Harries et al. 2001Griggs and Harries 2007). Further, studies of past climate clearly show that CO2 is a major driver of climate change (Lorius et al. 1990Tripati et al. 2009Shakun et al. 2012), and we have carefully studied the sun, volcanic emissions, Milankovitch cycles, etc. and none of them can explain the current warming, but including our greenhouse gasses in the analyses does explain the warming (Stott et al. 2001Meehl, et al. 2004Allen et al. 2006Wild et al. 2007Lockwood and Frohlich 20072008Lean and Rind 2008Foster and Rahmstorf 2011Imbers et al. 2014). Indeed, literally thousands of studies have all converged on the conclusion that we are causing the planet to warm, and peer-reviewed studies to the contrary are virtually non-existent (but see the next major point below). As a result, this is another topic that enjoys an extremely strong consensus among actual experts.

Similarly, vaccines have been studied thousands of times and have been shown to be extremely safe and effective. Indeed, they are the most well-studied treatment in medical history, and you can find trials that looked at pretty much whatever particular adverse event you are interested in. There are, for example, numerous studies that failed to find any evidence that vaccines cause autism, including a meta-analysis with over 1.2 million children (Taylor et al. 2014). There are studies showing that vaccines don’t cause SIDs (Hoffman et al. 1987Griffin et al. 1988Mitchell et al. 1995Fleming et al. 2001Vennemann et al. 2007a; Vennemann et al. 2007b), studies showing that they don’t cause asthma or allergies (Schmitz et al. 2011Grabenhenrich et al. 2014), studies showing that the flu vaccine doesn’t increase fetal or infant deaths (Mak et al. 2008Pasternak et al. 2012aPasternak et al. 2012bFell et al. 2012Haberg et al. 2013), etc. (you can find a non-exhaustive  list of a bunch of other safety trials here).

Image via The Credible Hulk

My point here is simple: all of these topics have been extremely well studied, and they are as close to settled as science ever comes. Anyone who holds one of these positions is denying a massive body of evidence, which is why I am comfortable with calling them science deniers. This also creates the dilemma that I will focus the rest of the post on. Namely, most of the people who hold these positions don’t want to be considered science deniers, so they have to come up with some excuse for rejecting science, and interestingly, they all seem to have converged on the same excuses.

Note: Inevitably on these topics, when faced with thousands of studies, people start shifting the goal posts and going down ever narrowing side-tangents, but the reality is that these topics are so well studied, that even if you want to go down a ridiculously specific side topic, in the majority of cases, there are still studies on that. So, before you comment with something to the effect of, “but what about…” or “the real issue is…” check and make sure that it hasn’t been studied, because odds are that it has.

  Cherry-picking small, poorly conducted studies

In an attempt to counter these mountains of evidence, many people rely on cherry-picking a handful of studies that appear to support their position, but this is problematic for a number of reasons. First, these topics have been studied so many times, that it is almost inevitable that there will be a handful of studies that reached a false conclusion just by chance (even if the studies were conducted flawlessly). This is a simple by-product of the statistical tests that we use (details here). Further, it is blatantly obvious that not all studies are equal. Bad research does sometimes get published. So, whenever you approach a scientific topic, you always have to look for a consensus among studies, rather than just cherry-picking the ones that agree with. This is why systematic reviews and meta-analyses (like the ones that I cited earlier) are so useful. They condense the results of many papers into a single work so that you can see the overarching trends, rather than being deceived by the statistical outliers.

Additionally, you need to critically examine a study before you accept it. Ask yourself questions like, did it have a large sample size? Was it controlled properly? Did it use a robust design? Did it use the appropriate statistical tests? Was it published in a reputable journal? etc. These are really important questions, and they are questions that anti-vaccers, climate change deniers, and GMO opponents rarely ask. Indeed, these positions are famous for citing truly horrible studies. Just in the past few weeks, for example, anti-vax websites were singing the praises of a “new” study that claimed to show that vaccinates were harmful, but in reality, the study was not set up correctly, it did not use the correct analyses, and it was so terrible that it was quickly retracted (details here). Further, that is far from a one-off event. Sherri Tenpenny (one of the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement) created an online “library” that exists for the express purpose of cherry-picking anti-vaccine studies for you, that way you can just see the studies that agree with you, without having to be bothered with the mountain of high quality studies that disagree with you (details here). Indeed, she makes no attempt to hide the fact that her site exists to help you find information that confirms your biases rather than trying to figure out what is true. For example, one of her pages advertising her site says (the weird capitalization was in the original),

“Convinced that Vaccines are Unsafe but Need Scientific Proof? You need information that gives you ‘The Other Side of the Story.’”

Similarly, on the topic of autism, anti-vaccers eagerly share lists of 100+ papers that supposedly show that vaccines cause autism, but as I explained at length here, many of those papers aren’t on autism or aren’t on vaccines, and the ones that are on topic all used small samples sizes and weak designs that can’t establish causation. In contrast, there are several large cross-section and cohort studies and even a meta-analysis with over 1.2 million children, all of which consistently failed to find any evidence that vaccines cause autism.

Click here to read the rest from Logic of Science

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Comments 51 to 55 out of 55:

  1. To the moderator: As I initially saw the article on this page with comments, I thought it would be the place to add to the discussion. I will continue here for the sake of continuity and to answer some concerns.

    My point was to show that man has two options in science: he can do things correctly or falsely, and this depends on two factors. 1) he uses current knowledge and reaches into the unknown with induction/deduction to further science; and 2) his perception is not distorted. I believe the latter is more important as even observable “facts” can be wrong, as Darwin, Curies’, et-al. have proved to the consensus. My post was written to show that even if there are thousands of well-established scientists agreeing on one theory, they could be proved wrong by only one person. Now let us take Climate Change Theory: is everyone aware there are at least a few hundred to thousands of high-level scientists who are accusing the CCT school of “denial and irresponsibility?” So who is right as both can’t be?

    Unfortunately, it is well known that “facts” and “research” in the modern-era can be used prejudicially and incorrectly to make one’s point. The case of the ex-editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr Marcia Angell, stating that this once world-renowned magazine is corrupted by their sponsor drug companies is a case in point. It is becoming exceedingly difficult to take “scientific research” at face value as fraud and bad research abound. One must take their time to double-check original references, etc, and most people do not have the time or inclination to do this. I did not say I do not believe in science, but only in observable theories that can usually be collaborative with other branches (i.e., a unifying principle). True scientists have always been geniuses with the instinctive gift to discover a profound truth. A truth that usually leads to someone else later improving it, as more creative thinking is applied. This is what makes it “good” science. This should rebut the original author’s claim "that one has to either accept science or not.”

    To poster “eclectic”: To your first point, Semmelweis was right, while pre-Columbus sailors were wrong; this is the domain of correct perception. Second point: are we so omnipotent as to state that our scientific thinking is at an all time-high without capacity for serious error, while simultaneously mocking the pre-mid 20th century minds? May I remind everyone that the most profound and life changing inventions and ideas emerged before the “information superhighway."

    But let’s try this from a different angle—the climate change school is really the newcomer to the field and therefore has to prove their point. Did not they use all of the nine points the article refers to going against mainstream science? It was very easy to use the accusatory terms “fringe and denial” against CCT, and with the roles reversed, one can see it’s an ad-hominem attack. I prefer to call the anti-CCT school unbelievers, as CCT has not been proven by observation. One can cite all the studies until tomorrow, but the very real fact that we are getting snow and freezing temperatures all over the world and a deep-winter pattern is re-emerging shows that climate change is real, but not in an abnormal way. I prefer not to list all the studies and web sites to counter CCT, as I am just addressing the “logic of science.”

    I personally find it is a mistake for the anti-CCT school to withhold a statement about the Earth’s environment, as they are seen as uncaring, boorish, and influenced by money, etc. This is not the case at all with many of us. We care about the environment and would like to reduce pollution as much as feasible and practical. If we would not need combustion engines and coal, fine, but that is impossible at this stage, and forcing a nation to forego their energy requirements is tyrannical. The agents of pollution that are immensely more dangerous that CO2 (of which man-made is a minor part) are the chemicals and the full spectrum of electromagnetic energy, and I would not mind if there was a vast reduction in their usage.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] I would just add that: "CCT has not been proven by observation. One can cite all the studies until tomorrow, but the very real fact that we are getting snow and freezing temperatures all over the world and a deep-winter pattern is re-emerging shows that climate change is real, but not in an abnormal way."

    is moving into realm of sloganeering. Firstly, you dont prove anything in science, that is for maths and logic. Secondly, if you want assert that observations are counter to what a theory states will happen, then you need a/ link to a statement of consensus theory that you think is contradicted (the IPCC reports are starting point) and b/ link to observations that you think show the contradiction. Otherwise you are simply sloganeering or attempting a strawman argument. (ie it is not clear to me that freezing temperatures in winter in parts of US and Europe are in contradiction with the theory - far from it - but it behoves you to show that).

  2. Alan @51  — Again, you are failing to achieve clarity [including validity] in the expression of your lines of argument.

    Your Paragraph 2  --  <"... even if there are thousands of well-established scientists agreeing on one theory, they could be proved wrong by only one person..."> (unquote) is a nonsense argument in the case of climate science.  Modern climate science is based in the "hard" sciences of physics & inorganic chemistry i.e. in well-integrated science involving cross-linking of large numbers of strands (strands of basic scientific theory meshed with experimental & empirical evidence).   Furthermore, regarding climate science, there is only about a score of "genuine" climate scientists who are [in modern parlance] Climate Deniers . . . and these 20 or so are unable to present any valid evidence or counter-hypothesis !    Worse, their ideas/statements seem mutually contradictory (as well as failing to possess plausibility !! ).

    Of the <"... at least a few hundred to thousands of high-level scientists who are accusing the CCT** ..."> (unquote), they are likewise possessing no valid case .   Instead, they lose their minds in a quagmire [ =swamp?  ;-)  ]  of empty rhetoric and/or extremist political posturing . . . but they possess no actual scientific reasoning to support their positions [positions plural] .    Sadly, some appear to be in their dotage, and some are possessed [ excuse pun  ;-)  ]  by extremist/fundamentalist religious beliefs which prevent them from acknowledging reality [ e.g. Spencer, Lindzen ] ,  and some seem not to know one end of a Lapse Rate from t'other.

    Evidence and logical reasoning, Alan — that is what the Deniers lack.


    Your Paragraph 3 --  Alan, you make an illogical argument when you try to equate the "hard sciences" to the "soft sciences" [e.g. sociology] or the distinctly-less-than-hard sciences such as medical science (and your case of the New England Journal of Medicine).   Apples and oranges, Alan.   Without taking away from the vast achievements of medical science during the past 200 years [anesthetics, surgery, vaccinations, drugs, etc] nevertheless the experiment-based advances of modern medicine are usually impeded by a vast complexity of confounding factors (as well as by the effect of human psychology).   These confounding complexities hamper the medical scientists in a way that does not exist in the vastly simpler area of physics/climate/meteorology.   Alan, your comparison/analogy is not valid, and so your argument is not valid.


    Your Paragraph 4 — Alan, nobody is mocking the most brilliant minds of the early centuries of science . . . but they lived in a very different scientific environment (from the cross-checking and weight of consistent evidence, found in the "hard sciences" of today).


    Your Paragraphs 5 & 6 ,  — Alan, it is all about the evidence.  The evidence supports the mainstream scientific consensus position (regarding climate).   There is no actual supporting evidence to be found for the (many and incoherent) positions of the deniers /science-deniers /denialists /call-them-what-you-will.   I myself would like to be able to dignify some of them with the term "contrarians" . . . but that cannot be, since to be a contrarian one must have something valid to base one's "counter-position" on.   And that is exactly what the deniers lack (as well as lacking logical commonsense risk management, and lacking decent compassion for billions of other human beings) .


    BTW, Alan, you also fail in your "local weather" argument . . . for instance while in the past two weeks or so, a small part [scientifically insignificant] of north-east North America has had a bitter cold snap — yet other parts of the world have been experiencing heat waves.   Even worse for your line of argument : the New England cold snap may well, to a considerable extent, be a result of Arctic warming (Arctic warming being a consequence of AGW).


    ** Alan, the "Climate Change Theory" term you use is an odd one — not generally used by scientists (likewise, even more odd, is your contraction "CCT" which would be meaningless to educated people).   Best to stick with standard English and standard/widely-used abbreviations, in climate discussions, Alan.  There is already more-than-enough appallingly-poor communication in the discussion of important topics, in today's world !

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  3. Eclectic, I appreciate the time you took for your answer, but we're at a stalemate as we both hold contrary opinions.
    And as this website is dedicated to climate change, it is not my desire or intent to proselytize and convert readers, and I won't descend to "troldom", so this will be my last post.
    For disclosure's sake, I was erroneously directed to this site by google search, and saw the site interesting, with an open comments section (uncensored).

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Well constructed comments are very welcome on this site. However, it can be very frustrating for an author to write a piece, and then have discussed elsewhere (especially on as a repost on site that the author might not frequent). It would be courtesy to put a copy of your comments on the authors site as I suspect he would be interested in discussing your points.

  4. Alan @53 , I whole-heartedly assure you that there is no stalemate, as far as my opinions are concerned.  (And I am fairly sure that I speak on behalf of almost all of the scientific-minded users of this website.)

    I am very open to being persuaded by you, that I [and the scientific consensus] am largely in the wrong about the harms coming from AGW and about the urgent need to counter CO2 emissions.   Few things would please me more, than to learn that there is no problemo.

    Unfortunately, Alan, you have provided no evidence or arguments that the 99.9% of climate scientists are wrong.   Your comments lack logic and science — and worse, they appear to demonstrate your fixed resistance to to clear & rational thinking about AGW & related problems.

    If you feel that is not the case, then you are very welcome to raise and discuss/dispute the various aspects — but please do so at the appropriate threads (rather than this thread).   Best of luck !

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  5. Alan:

    Your general argument appears to be "sometime science gets things wrong", which is obviously, true, but then you see to extend this to "so anything I don't like I can presume is also wrong". As I pointed out before, that is item #8 on the list in the post.

    You need to have a better reason for thinking the science on climate change is wrong. The best reason is evidence and a better theory. The "skeptics" only present evidence after rejecting most of it (items 1, 2, and 3 on the list), and their alternative "theories" tend to be self-contradictory and often require the rejection of basic physics.

    Science advances by providing better explanations, not hand-waving away the current ones.

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