Anti-vaxxers, just because it’s a citation doesn’t make it true or relevant

Science publication

Anti-vaxxers love bibliography salad. They are constantly clogging the comments sections of my vaccine pieces with citations they have carefully cut and pasted from other anti-vaxxers.

As usual, they flatter themselves by imagining that it shows how knowledgeable they are. Sadly for them, it merely confirms their ignorance. That’s because merely being published in a journal doesn’t make a claim either true or relevant.

Ask anti-vaxxers to cite systematic reviews or meta-analyses to support their claims. They won’t be able to do so.

Their lack of understand fuels their cynicism and the cynicism of many other lay people.

When faced with conflicting scientific claims, lay people often conclude that the truth is simply a matter of what you prefer to believe. Even worse, they occasionally conclude that there is no truth or that the truth is unknowable. It might help, though, to consider a real life example. We know that there are newspapers and news organizations will often report conflicting accounts of political disagreements. And we know that just because we read something in the newspaper, it is not necessarily so.

Reading a scientific paper is similar to reading a newspaper article. Consider the birther “controversy.” A Democratic leaning newspaper may run an article with the headline that Obama was born in Hawaii. A radical Republican newspaper may run an article with the headline that Obama was born in Africa. That does NOT mean that Obama’s place of birth is indeterminate or that we cannot know where Obama was born.

The abstract of a scientific paper is the equivalent of the headline in a newspaper. It tell you the conclusion that the author wants you to draw. It does NOT mean that the conclusion is true, anymore than a newspaper headline means that the article underneath it is true.

The body of the scientific paper is the equivalent of the body of the newspaper article. It offers facts and draws conclusions based on those facts. Even articles with false claims will offer facts. The radical Republicans offer facts for their claim that Obama was born in Africa: his middle name is “Hussein;” his father was born in Africa; there are not many black people in Hawaii. The Democratic newspaper offers facts: it might show a picture of Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate with the official seal; it may have obtained access to Obama’s hospital record from the day he was born.

So we have two articles with two different conclusions and two different sets of facts. Does that mean that we cannot know where Obama was born? Of course not. It is a fact that Obama’s middle name is “Hussein” and it is a fact that his father was born in Africa, but that is actually irrelevant in determining where Obama was born. The birth certificate and the hospital record prove that Obama was born in Hawaii.

Similarly an anti-vax website might run a piece claiming that vaccines are unsafe and ineffective. Medical websites will run pieces claiming that vaccines are safe and effective. The opposing claims do not mean that the safety and efficacy of vaccines are indeterminate or in doubt.

The citations offered by anti-vaxxers do contain facts. For example, they may show that large doses of aluminum are toxic to certain cells in petri dishes. Or they may show that some children do die of vaccine reactions. But that does NOT mean that vaccines are unsafe or that vaccine injuries are common.

So how do we decide what’s true? We look at the scientific evidence in the aggregate. That’s especially important in an area such as vaccine safety and efficacy. There are literally tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of papers. Therefore, we look at massive studies (millions of children), and systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

There are many large studies of vaccine safety and efficacy and many systematic reviews and meta-analyses that address these issues. The overwhelming majority of them show vaccines to be safe and effective. That conclusion is NOT undermined by random papers that show large doses of aluminum are toxic to cells in petri dishes and not undermined by case reports of individual children who have rare vaccine reactions.

So if someone comes to you and offers random scientific citations to show that vaccines are either unsafe or ineffective ask them to cite at least ten systematic reviews or meta-analyses to support their claims. They won’t be able to do so … and that’s how you’ll know that their claims are nonsense.