Earlier this year, the California Immunization Coalition invited me to speak at their 2015 summit. They’d heard me on a conference call with Voices for Vaccines, discussing methods for helping parents make the best decisions about immunization. I was delighted to have the chance to work with the Coalition, which does exemplary work in protecting children from vaccine-preventable diseases.
Thanks to Jennifer and Violent Metaphors, I have a chance to share the same material I presented at the Summit with you. My speech wasn’t recorded, which is a shame because I’m sure it was a treat and delight for everyone in the audience. (Self-deprecating humor is a common persuasive tool. As is handsomeness.) Instead I’m putting up each of the slides with a brief explanation of what I discussed, where it isn’t obvious from the image.
Given recent measles outbreaks and the ravenous news cycle, it was inevitable that public attention would shift to politicians’ position on vaccination. Some commenters are reacting by politicizing the vaccine debate, painting conservatives or the tea party (or, in response to those messages, liberals) as anti-vaccine. Please don’t let this message take hold. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s counterproductive.
The president set off a small chain reaction by advising parents to vaccinate, but Governor Chris Christie’s comments have drawn the most attention. His statement was almost meaningless; he told reporters that (of course) he vaccinated his own children, and “that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” Vaccination is not strictly mandatory in any state, and most states permit exemptions for the few parents who have ideological objections to modern medicine, so as a matter of simple fact the government has already decided and given parents that choice. (He went on with a few more comments, but other than to say that obviously we disagree with them, there’s not much point in dissecting them here.)
Christie is a politician who wants to avoid unnecessary controversy. After the first negative reports of his comments emerged, he distanced himself from anti-vaxers by firmly stating, “there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” But it was too late. The public picked up on his initial remarks and fed him straight into the gnashing teeth of the news cycle. And once the meal started, other prominent politicians with an eye on 2016 staked out seats at the table. Rand Paul seemed to give credence to some anti-vax myths, although he, too, backed down a bit and clarified that vaccines are “a good thing.” His fellow conservative (and fellow physician) Ben Carson pushed back on those statements, backing vaccination and even comparing anti-vaxers to secondhand smokers. Hillary Clinton, the three conservatives’ bête noir, came out with her own strong, respectable and simple message: “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.”
Notice something about these statements? Even the most ant-vax statement isn’t all that opposed to vaccination, compared to what you read online. That’s no surprise. The overwhelming majority of parents vaccinate their kids, and politicians who offend overwhelming majorities retire early. But you’re going to read a lot of headlines and tweets about how Rand Paul and Chris Christie are anti-vaxers because they’re pandering to the voters; you may even see people promoting the meme that Republicans (or conservatives or Tea Partiers) are anti-vax now. Don’t buy it.
UPDATE: Looks like Natural News intercepted the “DoNotLink” link and redirected to an old article bragging about their supposed scientific prowess. I’ve replaced it with a direct link to the article.
Mike Adams, who calls himself the “Health Ranger,” has an ugly reputation for incompetence when it comes to scientific questions. That shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s a relentless self-promoter and a talented salesman who has discovered that wearing a lab coat and using four-dollar words moves product. He hawks supplements, housewares, CDs and DVDs, tinctures, powders, lotions and potions that will cure what ails you! People are more likely to buy his wares if they don’t trust their doctor, and if they’re full of fear for their own health. So it’s probably no coincidence that Adams’s Natural News site also pushes frightful misinformation about how awful, terrible, and corrupt those scheming doctors and scientists are.
It’s a very savvy marketing strategy, because people who feel like mainstream doctors and scientists are out to get them will probably identify more strongly with Adams’s Natural News community as a way to feel like they’re fighting back. That would make them more likely to trust him, and more likely to fork over $40 for ten ounces of freeze-dried apples (a little over $25 on Amazon).
If Adams is a world-class salesman, he’s strictly an amateur when it comes to science and, it appears, the law. A few days ago Adams posted an article screaming, “MMR measles vaccine clinical trial results FAKED by Big Pharma – shocking U.S. court documents reveal all”. Meh. The article is beyond misleading. Anyone reading just that, and not digging further, would walk away with a profound misunderstanding of what’s going on in the case. It could be just rank incompetence, but nothing about the article give me the impression that Adams gives a damn whether the contents are true or not, as long as the audience gets good and angry at those evil government scientists and corporate doctors. (And if his description of the case gets you angry enough, you can fight back! Just click on the “Store” button conveniently located right above the article and buy yourself an herbal medicine kit, or some essential oils, or an immunity-boosting candle, or all-natural salt, or even a $100 pack of iodine. Just the sort of thing they don’t want you to buy!)
The good fight is that special argument where you know you’re right, and just can’t imagine how anyone could possibly disagree. But they do, even when the disagreement is about something fundamental and irreconcilable. Did we evolve? Is the climate changing? Are vaccines safe? Do I really have to pay my taxes? The answers matter, but so do the arguments. Let’s try to improve them.
This is Part I in a series about how and why we have those difficult conversations, online and in the real world. We’ll explore ways to make them more persuasive, more fun, and more rewarding. For a practical example of where we’re going with this, see my earlier piece, The Most Important Playground Conversation: How to Persuade a Friend to Vaccinate. Going forward we’ll focus particularly on arguments with people who have irrational ideas, like anti-vaxers or creationists, but some topics apply in every conversation. This is one of them, because in every conversation you have to remember: you are talking to a person.They are as real, as smart, and as decent as you are. You’re having a conversation, not a battle. That’s the hardest thing to remember for all of us some of the time, and for some of us all of the time.
I was going to start this series by writing about goals and strategies, but then I got bogged down in a conversation on global warming that reminded me of that more fundamental rule. It doesn’t matter what your goal is if you let yourself forget that you’re talking to a real person. Personalizing an argument, making it about the people instead of the issues, poisons conversations. Once you start to think of the conversation as just another blunt object to apply to the other person’s head, you’ve already lost. So what happened, and what can we do about it?
You may have seen the news about a Texas court throwing out Andrew Wakefield‘s lawsuit against Brian Deer, the investigative journalist who did so much to uncover Wakefield’s fraudulentanti-vaccine study. You can read the court’s opinion for yourself, but I’ve already seen some inaccurate commentary on it. Here’s a little background on the case, and a quick explanation of what happened last week for non-lawyers.
Last month in the case of Phillips v. New York, a federal judge upheld a New York City policy barring unvaccinated children from schools where a vaccine-preventable illness has been diagnosed. The case received a lot of attention from the media, including the New York Times and Slate. But these articles don’t say much about what really happened in the case. Since the case dealt with the same kinds of arguments many anti-vax parents make, I went through it to acquaint myself with the law. Since I was reading up on it anyway it might be useful or interesting to other people to see how a case like that works. Bear in mind that this is a broad-strokes explanation, and I’m going to oversimplify some of the legal principles. But if you’re curious how the sausage is made, read on.
Last weekend I attended the Autism Trust’s Give Autism a Chance Summit. Billed as an “informative conference,” it actually felt like a Two Minutes Hate about the evils of science and medicine. Speakers harangued the audience about the evils of vaccination–including a bizarre show trial–and pushed snake oil on desperate parents. Some of the speakers touted services based on absurd, unproven theories; others lied shamelessly to the attendees. Although there were some positive messages on display, the conference focused on sowing fear and using it to move product.
Thanks to Jenny McCarthy and Megan of Living Whole for proving the point: anti-vaxers are lying to parents. Jenny McCarthy is in the news lately with an op-ed that starts with a whopper: “I am not ‘anti-vaccine.’” This is absolutely not true; McCarthy has worked hard for years to scare parents away from vaccinations. The root of her campaign is her insistence that vaccines cause autism, despite the conclusion of the community of experts that there is no evidence of such a link.
It’s absurd for her to claim now that she only wants “safe” vaccinations, since the dangers she complains about are primarily in her head. Vaccines, like any medicine, can’t ever be 100% safe, but they’re “among the most safe and effective public health interventions to prevent serious disease and death.” Science can’t make a vaccine “safer” if the problems she wants fixed don’t exist. It’s as if she was telling parents not to fly until Boeing finds a way to keep gremlins off their planes. They can’t do it because gremlins, like a vaccine-autism connection, don’t exist. Nevertheless McCarthy uses those false fears to drive a wedge between parents and their doctors, depressing vaccination rates while still shamelessly claiming she’s not “anti-vaccine.”
McCarthy has been lying for years about the dangers of vaccines. If the effect of those lies is to stop parents from vaccinating, then yes, she is an anti-vaxer. But she’s not stupid; she knows that people give more credibility to voices that claim to be “in the middle” or “just asking questions.” So she lies. She claims that she’s not an anti-vaxer, even though her goal and effect is to reduce childhood vaccinations, because she’s a more credible and effective anti-vaxer if she can persuade parents she’s just asking questions about the safety of the vaccination schedule. Since those questions have long since been answered, the only reason she’s still asking them is to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about some of the safest medical products available, her pretense at a balanced stance is false and misleading.
It’s common for anti-vaxers to lie to enhance their credibility. It’s one of the only ways the movement can make progress, since the community of experts disagrees with their conclusions so fervently. One way is to claim false equivalence, as McCarthy does. But we recently saw a good example of an even bolder lie, courtesy of Megan at Living Whole.