Vaccines: opinions are not facts


There’s an old phrase among critical thinkers: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts*. The idea is that these are two different things: opinions are matters of taste or subjective conclusions, while facts stand outside that, independent of what you think or how you may be biased.

You can have an opinion that Quisp cereal is, to you, the best breakfast food of all time. But you can’t have the opinion that evolution isn’t real. That latter is not an opinion; it’s objectively wrong. You can have the opinion that the evidence for evolution doesn’t satisfy you, or that evolution feels wrong to you. But disbelieving evolution is not an opinion.

The same can be said for many other topics of critical thinking.

Deakin University Philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes makes just this case in a well-written piece called No, You’re Not Entitled to Your Opinion. For his basic example of this he uses the modern antivaccination movement, specifically Meryl Dorey and the Orwellain-named Australian Vaccination Network, or AVN.

Dorey’s name is familiar to regular readers: she spews antivax nonsense at nearly relativistic velocities, able to say more provably wrong and blatantly dangerous things than any given antiscience advocate after eight cups of coffee (just how dangerous the antivax movement is has been written about ably by my friend Seth Mnookin in Parade magazine). She never comes within a glancing blow of reality, and has been shown to her face that whatshe says is wrong, but stubbornly refuses to back down. She claims vaccines are connected to autism, that vaccines contain dangerous levels of toxins, that vaccines hurt human immune systems. None of these things is true. Reasonable Hank, who is outspoken about Dorey, has an exhaustive list of the awful things she’s said and done.

But some media pay attention to her, and in Australia the rate of pertussis is skyrocketing. Babies have died from this illness – not that Dorey actually believes that. Despite this, some media let Dorey rant on with her medical health conspiracy theories, citing “balance” when doing their stories. This is, simply, crap. Talking to doctors and researchers with years of experience in public health, and then Dorey (who has zero qualifications to discuss this topic) gives her de facto equal footing with reality. It would be like having astronauts interviewed about the space station, then talking to a UFO hunter.

Written By: Phil Plait
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  1.  ” It would be like having astronauts interviewed about the space station, then talking to a UFO hunter.”

    In the interests of ‘balance’ that is precisely what many media organisations do.

  2. Some of these media muppets think “balance” is hanging a prominent house brick on a diamond necklace.

    That is how the oblivious dummies’ brains work. 
    It’s like their understanding of “animals”. 
    If it has four legs and is big enough to fall over, or it bites, it is recognised as an “animal”!
    (Test:- Ask “flood-myth experts”, to name 6 African animals)

  3. MadEd
     ” It would be like having astronauts interviewed about the space station, then talking to a UFO hunter.”

    When I think of an appropriate response to such people, the classic quality role model is Professor Brian Cox.

    On a BBC astronomy phone in, a conspiracy theorist wanted to ask Astronaut Gene Cernan, a Moon landing conspiracy question.

    The reply from Brian Cox was, “Why don’t you change channels and watch ‘Big Brother’!”

    Their lazy-brained “opinions”, should be publicly treated with the “merit” they deserve!

    In the same series Dara O’Briain said, “Astrology is rubbish!” with Brian Cox responding, “In the interests of balance, I have to say, astrology is rubbish!”  _ The astrologers complained to the BBC!

    Given that Dara is a top comedian noted for mocking politicians in general, the stupid in particular, this was probably a poor move by the astrologers!

    Dara O’Briain with home truths about quackery –

  4. Although I didn’t agree fully with Stokes’ article of last week I do agree with this one. The real problem is not that vaccines couldn’t be dangerous in some respect but if the evidence isn’t sound it’s dangerous to scream fire. What I mean is that the noise produced by these conspiracy lovers will create an atmosphere in which everyone who has something to say on this subject will be deemed an idiot. Evidence that would support a case could possibly be ignored because the bulk of stuff that’s being said about this subject is nonsense.
    The boy who cried wolf…
    Besides that, I think they are responsible for a lot of unnecessary suffering in the world. Can’t they be put on trial?

  5. I personally can’t believe that evidence to support a case would ever be ignored no matter how much noise surrounds it. a similar situation exists with reagrds to climate change. there are genuine questions surrounding the science that need answers. that’s not the same as saying AGW is a 50/50 situation, it’s almost definitely a fact but many people are rightly concerned about how much weight is put on certain conclusions, especially when making predictions.

    the point is, the facts are always easy to find for those who know how to look for them and any peer-reviewed publication that can point to a genuine risk will be taken seriously (as with the MMR-autism link, raken seriously right up to the point it was debunked)

    “Besides that, I think they are responsible for a lot of unnecessary suffering in the world. Can’t they be put on trial?”

    Absolutely not! no more than cartoonists should be put on trial for causing religious violence. Responsibility, for example for deciding on vaccinating children falls on the parents. If a child dies of measles because a parent skipped their jabs, you can’t add this to a journalists charge-sheet. They should be put on trial of sorts however, ensuring their lies/misunderstandings are made public. beyond that people have to take responsibility for their own actions including the action of choosing to believe a particular party.

    on the subject of media balance, i can’t help wondering why whenever a particularly nasty criminal is sentenced, you never see the papers pointing out he pleaded not-guilty so there’s every chance the prosicution, jury and judge all got it wrong

  6. I guess Dorey is just another victim of the global mistrust of the chemical and drug industries. As you say, these people are our front line scientists who spend a lot of cash on research and development. It is a practice of some of theses companies to overlook unfavourable tests results for the sake of profit. (I hope you don’t think I am starting another conspiracy theory!)
    When it comes to public health and safety, I believe that over reaction is better than no reaction at all. It would be folly for the public to trust theses industries and scientists implicitly considering the coverup tactics some of these companies have employed in the past.
    That been said, I do agree that complaints of abuse should be accompanied by supportive evidence.

  7. Some thoughts on this topic.

    Most of us grow up surrounded by trustworthy people which could be why we  more often trust authority figures than doubt but age and  experience brings doubts and skepticism.  While we agree this a good thing with regard to religion there are other topics that, when questioned, are immediately labeled “conspiracy theories” .  This shows the limits of  critical thinking.

    Who can doubt the benefits of vaccines that have proved capable, since their invention, of eliminating diseases? Not me.  So why are some people scared?

     Could it be that much of the trust that people had in authority figures and institutions has been broken, and so badly broken by our knowledge of collusion and corruption at the highest levels between  our governments and industry, Big Pharma included.  So can we, should we be trusting ? World News) Poland.

  8. Look, either vaccines are extremely dangerous and toxic or they aren’t.  That means it’s a 50% chance that they are dangerous and toxic.   So, shouldn’t we avoid all vaccinations just to be on the safe side?  Think of the children!


  9. Dorey. Isn’t that the name of the Regal tang in Finding Nemo? The one with short term memory loss.

    That might explain why this Dorey forgets the evidence 2 seconds after having it shown to her.

  10. Not that I am advocating any limits on free speech, but it interests me to to see that those that do advocate such a position have nothing to say about limiting the free speech of nut bags like this Dorey person. Yet, look askance at Islam and these people are all over you and wanting to shut you up. 

  11. There is too much emphasis nowadays on respecting peoples views when what people mean is respecting the right to hold and express a view.

    Some views are silly such as believing in bogey men and some are reprehensible like killing because the bogey man says its OK.  Respecting this is just admitting a failure to think straight.

    On the other hand allowing someone to hold oddball views is OK to do otherwise is just censorship and totalitarianism.

    It isn’t a balancing act.  There is no controversy about stupidity other than respecting it.  We shouldn’t respect views we should assess people’s values and reasons and if they’re clearly wrong we should be able to say so even if it offends ’em.

  12. I get my flu vaccine every single year without exception.

    I have encounter people who claim vaccination is useless, and that drug companies are earning money and do not want to talk the truth.  Interestingly, some of them are also well educated in medical sciences.  

    In my personal experience, after vaccination, I either do not get sick, or if I get flu the symptoms are mild.  I am happy with this, and I think all elderly people should be vaccinated.

  13. Thanks, Alan, for that reminder from Dara O’Briain. From time to time when I hear these idiotic claims I mentally note, “Get in the feck’n sack!” but had forgotten where the feck’n sack came from.

  14. Why are we wasting time trying to convince idiots? Stupid opinions or beliefs do not serve as a basis to infringe on the rights of others, vaccination should be obligatory.

  15. I think you are entitled to your own thoughts, and that includes opinions. However, you are not entitled to spread false information, especially if it causes injury to others. Law will kick in if that mendacity is clear and harmful enough, but that is rare on the personal level. The difficult cases are those who truly believe things that are wrong, and think that they are being helpful to others by charging on with their views against the tide of a deluded world. The leaders of the religious world have characterized Richard Dawkins as exactly such a case, even as we look upon the supporters of the Discovery Institute and other Creationists that way.

    It boils down to the observation that the answer to bad speech is good speech. It is the obligation of everyone to look into the facts and speak out against the madness.

  16. Q. Quine
    Thanks, Alan, for that reminder from Dara O’Briain. From time to time when I hear these idiotic claims I mentally note, “Get in the feck’n sack!” but had forgotten where the feck’n sack came from.

    I don’t know if Dara is known in the US, but he has his own stand-up comedy TV series and a large following in the UK. –… –
    As the panel show approaches 100 episodes, the host says it’s “more fun” now it’s less aggressive


    …..  Not sure how he would go down in the southern states?

  17. What do people think of WeAreChangeChicago member arrested on false charges for asking Dr. Oz about vaccines? 

  18.  “The Law will kick in” I guess you are not an American!  The American people have been lied to,by their Presidents,  Politicians, Justice Department, Tobacco Companies, Big Pharma… the list could go on..for years  but the Law never kicks in because those at the top of the pyramid of power are above the Law.

  19. Omg, I should really check the comments first. I posted the exact same clip. 

    Please forgive me, I am unworthy.

  20. Yes, I am an American, and I remember the major legal battle that the tobacco companies lost. Big pharma loses these all the time and part of the expense we all pay is for the insurance they buy. I conditioned what I wrote on the gravity of the situation, and the fact that some or many manage to avoid the consequences of the law, that does not mean that the law never “kicks in” or that some getting away with it means that the law might as well not be there at all.

  21. I get your point of not putting these people on trial because everyone, of course, has the right to voice their own opinion. But isn’t that just what this is all about? At a certain point some things aren’t just opinions any more. Maybe it’s in the way these things are voiced. Screaming murder because you think you have discovered a problem or voicing your concern that something appears wrong to you and you want some one to look into it as well to help decide if there is actually something wrong or not. If there is, appropriate action can be taken. In most cases that works best and panic can be avoided. It’s like yelling fire in a crowded building which will very likely cause a panic or asking people to leave the building calmly without yelling fire which quite possibly would be much more effective. Of course reality is much more complex.
    “on the subject of media balance, I can’t help wondering why whenever a particularly nasty criminal is sentenced, you never see the papers pointing out he pleaded not-guilty so there’s every chance the prosecution, jury and judge all got it wrong”
    Maybe the media should. Justice systems and police aren’t perfect. A critical view is better than believing an institution just because it’s official. I don’t know how rare it is that someone is found guilty for a crime he or she didn’t commit but it does happen. Especially when the supposed crime is especially nasty, emotions tend to start playing a role and in those cases a critical view of the media might help. The media, however, are often the more emotional voice.

  22.  “Typhoid Mary” springs to mind. These days, there would no doubt be big campaigns to free her, and she’d end up making lots of money as a health “expert”!

  23. I was waiting in a doctor’s office today.  I came across a newspaper that had some stupid article about how smart meters were a plot to control your brain waves. To the authors of this paper, everything is a plot to kill you, including vaccines. It was a paper for paranoid people.  Was it a spoof?  Was it a callous bid for ads (not many)? Some people, usually those without any scientific background to make their own estimate of plausibility, seem most attracted to this stuff. The sillier the better.

    The local utility company has behaved badly, so it may just people people spreading idiotic rumours to cause trouble. What makes me mad is the way the media treat all this seriously as if the odds were 50:50 that smart meters were a major health danger.

    It could be the same desire to screw Merck by hook or by crook.

    Health magazines host ads for all kinds of questionable products with exaggerated claims along with dire warnings against the usual products. There the motive could be primarily financial.

  24.  True, after years of legal battles some tobacco companies had to pay what must have been peanuts compaired to the profits.  Big Pharma  and some banks have recived taps on the wrist but those responsible for the decisions are never held accountable. Money can in no way compensate for death.

    As an American you should check this out: or Google Soldiers CIA Vaccines

  25. Drug company trials fail all the time, and products are withdrawn from development as a result. Some products are even withdrawn/not launched because of “guilt by association” as the companies are so worried about being sued.
    Case in point Metformin: this is now the world’s first line diabetes medication, but it wasn’t released in the USA for nearly 20 years after Europe as two previous drugs in its class had been withdrawn. This doesn’t sound like these companies are playing it fast and loose with public health to make a quick buck.

  26. Also vaccines suck as a revenue stream, if all drug companies was after was profit they wouldn’t develop vaccines but medicines to treat the chronic results of people damaged by Scarlet fever/mumps/rubella/pertussis/measles/smallpox/cholera etc etc etc.
    These medicines would need to be taken for months or years and generate a lot more money.

  27. Dorey seems to like the romantic  idea of a lone challenger standing up against the establishment and challenging medical orthodoxy.
    This does happen within science and medicine and the outstanding australian example was the Doctor who proved the main cause of gastric ulcers was infection by the H.Pylori bacterium.
    But he did credible research (although deliberately infecting himself was decidedly unorthodox!) got it published and peer-reviewed and fought his corner and was proved right when others got the same results. He did not go on the street (or internet) and howl at the moon.

    The prevailing opinion amongst Doctors and esp. patients was that ulcers were caused by “stress” and were utterly convinced by this, mainly as it was a convenient explanation.

  28. It can often take years to link symptoms to cause.   When a large hole appeared in my gum revealing my jaw bone, neither my doctor not dentist knew why.  Consulting a dental surgeon I was told to stop taking Fosamax
    which I had, at the suggestion of my doctor, taken for osteoporose. 

    I Googled Fosamax and found  evidence that it causes necrosis of the jaw an extremly painful condition!
    Merck does not acnowledge this and doctors don’t seem to be informed.   My case, like many others I expect, has not been registered anywhere.  Doctors will therefore continue to put women on medication without informing them of  the possible dangerous side effects.

  29. In that case you need to insist to your GP that he report it to Merck via the Yellow Card reporting system (that is if you are in the UK).  If several such reports are received then legally Merck will have to add it to the SPC and doctors will become aware of it. If he doesn’t you are also allowed to report it yourself  (again that is the UK system).
    All drug companies can estimate pretty accurately how many Pts they have on each treatment and if rare conditions crop up in greater than expected numbers than they are legally obliged to educate doctors about them.
    All the established s/es for Fosamax would have been listed on the leaflet that came with your tablets, some would have been found out about in the original clinical trials but most of them would be found in post-marketing reporting.
    I hope it resolved it sounds horrible (smokers get it a lot) but if you have been on this medication for a while then at least ou have less chance of dying horribly from a hip fracture.

  30.  I don’t know if there is an equivalent system here in France but I do intend to inform my doctor of my findings.

      France does not let people die horribly from hip fracture. Hip replacement is not uncommon nor is it something only the rich can afford.

  31. Yes, but the fracture can happen before replacement surgery takes place often in women who had little idea that they had osteoporosis, care varies in all countries but it is something that always has poor outcomes. Prevention >>>>>>>better than treatment.

  32.  Of course, which is why all doctors should promote heathy living,  excercise and organic foods but they don’t.

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