The Anti-Vax Enemies List and the importance of being echoed

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I wrote yesterday that I am thrilled to be on the Anti-Vax Enemies List, but proud as I am, the truth is that I am far more thrilled that the list exists in the first place.

We can learn so much from it!

The most important thing about the list is not the identities of the people on it, but the mere fact that it exists. Its existence, its size, and its uses tell us a great deal about the vulnerabilities not merely of the anti-vax movement, but of all pseudoscience movements. By understanding those vulnerabilities we can be ever more effective in marginalizing, ridiculing and ultimately destroying those movements.

Simply put, the Anti-Vax Enemies List is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

How? Let me count the ways:

1. An enemies list is an implicit acknowledgement that the facts are not on their side.

When you know that you have scientific evidence in your corner, as everyone fighting pseudoscience does, from the luminaries down to individual bloggers, you need not worry about enemies since they are powerless to change the scientific evidence. They can lie about it, suppress it, and deny it but those are always failing strategies. The truth inevitably rises up to bite them.

When you are promoting lies, those who know the truth are naturally your enemies. Those who know the scientific evidence about vaccination don’t just demonstrate that anti-vaxxers are wrong, they humiliate them by pointing out their ignorance, illogical arguments, and, most devastatingly, their vastly overinflated egos. Those who know the scientific evidence about childbirth don’t just demonstrate that homebirth advocates (like Modern Alternative Mama Katie Tietje) are wrong, they humiliate them by pointing out their ignorance, illogical arguments, and, most devastatingly, their vastly overinflated egos. Those who know the scientific evidence about nutrtion and toxicology don’t just demonstrate that food-fools like Vani Hari (Food Babe) are wrong, they humiliate them by pointing out their ignorance, illogical arguments, and, most devastatingly, their vastly overinflated egos.

2. The size of the Anti-Vax Enemies List (30,000 names!) starkly reflects the weakness of the anti-vax movement.

For anti-vaxxers to assemble a list of 30,000 “enemies” means that the number of those arguing against pseudoscience dwarfs the number of those promoting pseudoscience. As others have noted, it would have taken far less time for the anti-vax crowd to assemble a list of their friends. There really aren’t that many “friends” of consequence.

The anti-vax crowd is in retreat. Reality has dealt them devastating blows, from the resurgence of diseases like pertussis and measles, to the willingness of legislatures like that in California to force them to pay a price for clinging to ignorance.

3. The purpose of the Anti-Vax Enemies List is perhaps the most revealing vulnerability of all.

The purpose of the list is to preemptively exclude list members from the echo chambers that are so vital to the propagation of pseudoscience. The information that the 30,000 list members post on Facebook, blogs and message boards is so incredibly compelling that banning it within moments does not fully obliterate its harm to anti-vax beliefs. Even the briefest exposure to scientific evidence fills anti-vaxxers with doubt. That ability to induce doubt of anti-vax propaganda is even more powerful among those who are in the process of being recruited by the anti-vax movement.

Anti-vaxxers, like most purveyors of pseudoscience, recognize that their most powerful weapon is the echo chambers that they create. Only by tricking each other into believing that they represent the majority can they sustain their nonsensical beliefs. Even the briefest intrusion of actual scientific evidence or logical argument can be fatal to maintaining the fiction that they are anything other than crackpots and conspiracists.

That’s why it is crucial for opponents of pseudoscience to breach those echo chambers and introduce truth and logic. Anti-vax, like all of pseudoscience, is rotten, weak and crumbling at its core. Its continued existence depends on hiding the rot within groups of ideologically committed believers. Even the brief entry of a single individual wielding the truth can be fatal to the group’s legitimacy. No one understands that better than the anti-vaxxers themselves. That’s why a list is needed; waiting to ban and delete the truth after it is written is too late. It must be banned preemptively.

It is equally critical for the opponents of pseudoscience to create alternative Facebook pages, blogs and message boards that don’t simply offer actual scientific evidence, but also host open debate of the issues. Open discussions, where anyone can post any information and argue about it with others, sends a powerful message to those flirting with pseudoscience, whether it is anti-vax pseudoscience, homebirth pseudoscience or any other variety: proponents of science and logic have nothing to fear because the truth is on their side. In contrast, proponents of pseudoscience are deeply afraid because they recognize, at a most fundamental level, that the truth undermines their cherished beliefs.

Those who wield the ban hammer (you know who you are!) may feel a temporary frisson of power by obliterating the truth from your Facebook pages, blogs and message boards, but you’ve actually advertised the weakness at the heart of your beliefs. You are acknowledging that those beliefs are so fragile that even the merest wisp of scientific evidence can overpower them.

I’m thrilled that the Anti-Vax movement has drawn up an Enemies List. I’m even more thrilled that it won’t help them in the least.

  • Does a spellchecker work on spells?

  • Blue

    I made the list too. 🙂 I can’t stand the pseudoscience BS. I worked in pharmacy (so of course I’m a shill) and studied molecular biology and biotech. I rarely go on anti-reality pages, but when I do, I ask them to explain how X idea works on say, a molecular level. They can’t answer me, of course, so that’s why I get called a troll. LOL How dare I question the “traditional wisdom” of these things! Obviously I’m just closed minded. Or maybe it’s the toxins. 😉

    • Ardea

      I took a “comparative scientific traditions” class at my (hippie) college, and it was actually mostly a philosophy of science class (not too many other scientific traditions because… there aren’t any), but, classmates would call you reductionist for mentioning molecules or other things too small to see.

  • PennyLane Handley

    Have to add – they say ” I troll for science” on the back. http://teespring.com/anti-vax-troll-list-2015

  • Tiffany Aching

    Ahhh. Thanks for the boost, I needed that. I am currently in a very frustrating discussion about vaccines on a French parenting forum and I just want to rip my head off when I read again and again that I should “do my research and form my own opinion rather than following the sheeple”. Here in France people are generally ok with MMR and never heard of Andrew Wakefield but lots of people believe that the hepatitis B vaccine causes MS (the anti-vaccination movement has its endearing little local idiosyncrasies). It has been proven again and again that, all things being equal, the probability of developing MS is strictly the same whether you have been vaccinated against hep B or not (the probability of dying a premature and painful death, not so much), but still. People want to believe that it’s dangerous (and that their perfect little snowflake won’t EVER, EVER experiment with drugs or have unsafe sex, so it’s no problem anyway).

  • Guess who is feeding his echo chamber in Orange CO., CA? Mr. Antivaxx himself. Here’s the link Phil Plait retweeted: http://www.rawstory.com/2015/05/anti-vaxx-scientist-whines-about-being-discredited-as-he-pushes-vaccine-fears-on-orange-county-moms/#.VV0lJTW53RA.twitter

  • Echo chambers seem to be the most necessary for those with an echo between the ears. Sad and scary.

  • T.

    WOOOO I am in it too, and with my real name 😀
    Must be for some post on Facebook.

  • Chris Preston

    Amy, your comments are exactly correct. That is why echo chambers are so quick to ban dissent. Dissent leads to questioning, which could bring down their whole house of cards.

    I am tempted to sign up to facebook on the back of this. If only to make their list more unwieldy.

    This is a complete own goal for the anti-vaccination crowd.

  • Just think of the new aliases we could come up with for their list. A nonsensical list should have true nonsense.

  • yugaya

    “The information that the 30,000 list members post on Facebook, blogs and
    message boards is so incredibly compelling that banning it within
    moments does not fully obliterate its harm to anti-vax beliefs.”

    I pity the All things Quack Party admins, bloggers, fb pages owners who have now dedicated themselves to not just using this list as a verification reference for anyone who pops up in their feed, but are in their efforts to keep their online spaces safe and intact going and manually banning everyone whose name is on the list.

    An average policeman probably doesn’t do 30 000 computer background checks in their entire career. Keeping antivaxx echochambers safe from opposition seems to be so much more demanding than keeping real people safe. :)))

  • To be fair I have seen informal lists of sexual abusers being passed around because law enforcement/college campuses/conference organizers/etc won’t hold them accountable. On occasion, a list can be a way to ensure safety in a vulnerable community. This list doesn’t meet the standard obviously, but the article seems to deride lists and list-makers so I thought a counter example might be worth discussing.

    • Karen in SC

      I don’t know, how is that list vetted? If it’s from the Sheriff’s office, I can see, but an informal list might be devastating to someone falsely accused. Or the other “xxxx Smith”s who aren’t sex offenders.

      Some on that list are concerned about being labeled a troll and if it will hurt them in some professional way. Imagine having the same name as a sex offender on a list that was being passed around.

      • demodocus

        A vendor at the local quilting expo had the misfortune of sharing a name with a recent school shooter. She didn’t seem particularly busy when I stopped by.

        • Poor thing, that’s not her fault!

        • Liz Leyden

          One of my high school friends had the same last name as the Oklahoma City bomber. They’re not related, but her family went through Hell for a few weeks.

      • Who?

        Vigilante lists are always, always a bad thing. If only because the motives of the list makers may not be squeaky clean.

        I’d hope the police if they were around would keep an eye on who they are interested in, not share that information with members of the public.

  • Montserrat Blanco

    Apparently their enemies list is longer than the CIA list…

    • The Computer Ate My Nym

      “I have here in my hand a list of 30,000 known pro-vaxxers and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy at the CDC…”

    • Do you think it’s larger than the CIA? {giggle}

      • Montserrat Blanco

        It probably is. It is a small city size! And I am not on the list, nor is everybody in this blog, so it is not complete.

        • I am so proud to be on it (under my real name; don’t go looking for hamsters) but it’s probably just because of a few Facebook pages I liked and a group I belong to.

  • A

    Who wants to read a list of 30,000 names anyway?

    • yeah and if your name was on there you could just say its someone else with a similar name because again, it has THRITY THOUSAND NAMES. The sheer number of names makes this list pretty ineffective.

      • moto_librarian

        I’m afraid that wouldn’t work for me, as my full name is quite distinctive. Oh, well.

      • yugaya

        Some of us have too localized names for that. 😀

    • Weirdos.

    • People who don’t have enough knitting or crochet to do. Or crewel.

  • Kazia

    I can’t see the article.

    • Me neither.

      • Kazia

        I can see it now!

    • Daniel Pyron

      It is a popular article – keep trying!
      (A proud member of The List)