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

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

Posted by Guest Author on Wednesday, 31 May, 2017

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