Anti-vaccination

After my latest experiment failed I decided to take a week off. I wanted to be far, far away from science, scientists, lab, data, publications… so I applied to help out at an ecological farm in Slovenia.

It was a beautiful week. My hosts- a couple and their 9-year-old son- were the most friendly, generous and knowledgeable. I met incredibly kind and interesting fellow travellers. They showed me a different way of living: one not based on consumption, but on respect for nature and its resources. I learnt so many things: how to build a house out of straw and clay, construction out of waste glass and ceramics, permaculture…  we worked, cooked and ate together; we fell asleep outside under the clearest skies and a blanket of stars.

Then, there were these conversations with my hosts:

It was painful. How. How do people come to believe that vaccines are bad?

When I got home, I decided to do an experiment: forget everything I know, and I would try to decide, based on information I can get my hands on, whether I support vaccination. I watched John Oliver, I read about Wakefield, the thimerosal experiments, I spent as long as I possibly can on VAXXED TV (oh god)…

This experiment was a complete fail. Here’s why:

Years of scientific training taught me to think critically: reading the thimerosal papers I immediately looked at dosages, sample sizes; the mere act of reading the papers instead of just listening to Rob Schneider talk about them. I learnt to second-guess all the evidence, to check the credibility of my sources of information, to look out for logical fallacies (Atul Gawande explains this way better).

I’m not saying that normal people don’t do it- but how many times were you forwarded something similar to this?


(source: http://www.thehealthsite.com/)

On VAXXED TV there are many videos of parents recounting how active, lively their children were before vaccination, and how they’ve been injured by vaccines. My first question is: how? Assuming that everything the parent described was true, what are the possible biochemical mechanisms behind these effects of vaccines? I know that correlation doesn’t imply causality. The child could have had hidden illnesses- there are many alternative hypotheses.

I’m also aware of how vaccines work, how they came about and their importance. For most people a shot is probably a lab-made secret liquid that stops you from getting some horrible diseases- the effect of which unfortunately is probably not Pinterest-worthy:

Whereas when people learnt about the mercury in the vaccine and the autism controversy, this is what you find on the internet:

(source: http://vaccine-injury.info/)

This is the crux of the problem: there’s a huge gap between scientists and the rest of the public, in our ways of thinking and our knowledge. Most scientists are not the most eloquent, especially not when it comes to our work. Without trying to explain our motives and methods, we sometimes jump straight to telling people what they should do just because we think we know more. Coupled with our association with the notorious pharmaceutical business, one can see why the public doesn’t trust us.


(data: http://www.pewinternet.org/interactives/public-scientists-opinion-gap/)

We are not entirely to blame- the complexity of scientific studies is hard to explain, the conclusions even harder. It’s easier if we could just say, “vaccines definitely do not cause autism”- instead as scientists we say “current scientific evidence does not suggest any correlation between autism and vaccination”. By nature we are cautious- something that we should be proud of, something the public should understand.

So what should we do? What could we do?

Unfortunately- not a lot. Some psychological studies showed that direct confrontation with contradictory evidence usually doesn’t change people’s mind (termed “the backfire effect”– the validity of this itself is debatable).

As my week in Slovenia passed, we talked more- my friends, my hosts. They asked me what I was working on, why I wanted to become a scientist. We worked together. I found out about their lives as chefs in Switzerland, film photographers, solo travellers practising their freedom, herbalists offsetting their carbon footprints. We helped each other out. I taught the young boy Chinese. I listened and learnt about healing abilities of plants and herbs.

Later I realised that albeit our differences in occupation, cultures and beliefs, we are all pursuing a life that we want. For me, I became a neuroscientist not because I wanted big money (all scientists would laugh at this), but because I yearn to find out more about this beautifully intricate thinking-feeling-sensing organ that we were blessed with.  I tried to convey that, and I hope that they will begin to see that scientists are not some elusive, money-grubbing children killers, but just rational, cautious and somewhat socially awkward beings that as curious about nature and lives as themselves.

Listen. Be humble; be kind. 

Author: Emmy Tsang

Final year PhD student at the Gross lab, EMBL Rome, interested in high-throughput approaches to achieve systematic understanding of neural circuits underlying instinctive behaviours; runs the science and society club to badger everyone about open publishing; baker by night.

4 thoughts on “Anti-vaccination”

  1. After I started reading a lot more on different ingredients for skincare products (i know it’s amateur research here), I tried to be very careful with interpreting results. The problem I find is that, a lot of the times, we are not equipped to understand how to evaluate results – I was fortunate to have studied a bit of research methodology in uni, but I also feel quite useless when trying to interpret results esp. when I wasn’t in the field to begin with, what are the common control mechanisms to look out for, etc and so many technical terms makes everything unreadable at first glance.

    It is only when people have a clear motive or know what they are looking for, or else just by reading a science paper won’t really help, so people resort to reading articles online…

    1. Thanks for the comment (: I agree- nobody has the time/energy/knowledge to go through all the original data, experimental designs, etc. for everything they say, not to mention biases from the researchers themselves, the writers… I feel frustrated and useless too. I guess the best we can do is, if there are disagreements regarding certain issues, definitely try to read a bit from all sides to have a balanced view. From here you already get a feeling of the major arguments for each side, and how logical these arguments are. This is what I valued most from this exercise (of writing this post)- I read a lot of anti-vaccination arguments that usually scientists (on the other extreme) would dismiss straight away. It didn’t change my stance on vaccination, but it allowed me to understand where people are coming from, and to pick out flaws from the current “scientific” standpoint. It also keeps me open-minded and remind me of how little I know, so I’m very open to be proved wrong (e.g. the day a well-constructed, controlled study that shows definite correlation between vaccines and autism). It’s something I feel scientists should do more often.
      Your comment prompted me to think that maybe I can write the next post on how to quickly differentiate between good and bad studies (for layman/lazy scientists), and what are the common research pitfalls to watch out for (: What do you think?

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