Want to stop an anti-vaccine parent in her tracks? Here’s how.


If there is one thing that every anti-vax parent believes, it is that she (or he) is educated on the topic of vaccines. She’s done her “research.” She’s read books, websites and message boards that have supplied her with a plethora of information and citations to scientific studies. Give her half a chance and she will overwhelm you with lists of vaccine ingredients, anecdotes of vaccine complications, and bibliography salad of dozens of studies she hasn’t read.

Want to stop her in her tracks?

Ask her a simple question: How do vaccines work?

It is truly amazing how many anti-vax advocates are dumbfounded by that simple question. Surely, if they are critiquing the safety and efficacy of vaccines, they must know how they work, right? They must understanding the difference between cellular and humoral immunity; they surely know how and why antibodies are created; they must understand the role of each vaccine component; they must be conversant with the workings of her immunity.

But they aren’t and they often don’t even realize it until you ask them to explain it to you.

How can it be that the same people who preen about their “knowledge” of vaccines are so woefully ignorant about the basics of vaccines? Two reasons: they don’t have knowledge; they have pseudo-knowledge. And they’re not aware of how woefully uneducated they are because they bask in the warmth of alternative communities of internal legitimacy.

What is pseudo-knowledge?

We are surrounded by pseudo-knowledge in everyday life and most of us understand that it isn’t true. Advertisements of all sorts of products, both legitimate and bogus, and filled with pseudo-knowledge. Most of us are quite familiar with the language of pseudo-knowledge:

“Studies show …”
“Doctors recommend …”
“Krystal S. from Little Rock lost 30 pounds in 30 days …”

In the era of patent medicine, claims like these were usually enough to sell a product. But consumers have become more jaded and the language of pseudo-knowledge has become more sophisticated as a result. Consider this explanation of the benefits of acai, a favorite among the scourge of bogus nutritional claims. According to Dr. Perricone (a real doctor!):

The fatty acid content in açaí resembles that of olive oil, and is rich in monounsaturated oleic acid. Oleic acid is important for a number of reasons. It helps omega-3 fish oils penetrate the cell membrane; together they help make cell membranes more supple. By keeping the cell membrane supple, all hormones, neurotransmitter and insulin receptors function more efficiently. This is particularly important because high insulin levels create an inflammatory state, and we know, inflammation causes aging.

This exerpt is classic pseudo-knowledge. It contains big, scientific words and sounds impressive. It contains actual facts, although they are entirely unrelated to the benefit being touted. It contains completely fabricated claims that have no basis in reality (“they make the cell membrane more supple”) and which, not coincidentally trade on the gullibility of some lay people (if my skin is no longer supple, it must be because the membranes of the individual cells are not supple) and it asserts that “we know” things that are flat out false.

Acai has been little more than a giant credit card scam. Anti-vax parents have been scammed in exactly the same way.

Much of what they think they know is flat out false (“the incidence of vaccine preventable diseases was falling before vaccines were introduced”), is anecdotal information proving nothing about anything (“Jenny McCarthy cured her son of autism!”), or goofy conspiracy theories that are ludicrous on their face (the entire medical pharmaceutical complex is aware that vaccines are not safe and not effective but they’re giving them to their own children anyway).

How is it that anti-vax parents don’t recognize that they don’t even know the most basic facts about immunology? They are part of communities of like minded believers. They inhabit an alternate world of internal legitimacy.

As Anna Kirkland explains in the paper The Legitimacy of Vaccine Critics: What Is Left after the Autism Hypothesis? published in Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law in October 2011.

[They]have built an alternative world of internal legitimacy that mimics all the features of the mainstream research world — the journals, the conferences, the publications, the letters after the names — and some leaders have gained access to policy-making positions. Mixing an environmentally inflected critique of vaccination and Big Pharma with a libertarian individualist account of health has been a resonant formulation for some years now, with support flowing in from both the Left and the Right.

Anti-vaccine websites and message boards maintain totalitarian control of this alternative world, by deleting comments that question the anti-vax received wisdom and banning commentors who have independent (and generally conflicting) knowlege of immunology, pediatrics and public health. Moreover, these communities do everything possible to reinforce the positive self-image of anti-vaxxers as heroes, brilliant heretics who question received wisdom in order to save their children’s lives.

Anti-vax parents occupy an alternate world of internal legitimacy, which means never having to face dissent, never having to respond to real scientific evidence, and never having to acknowledge that most of what they think they “know” is pseudo-knowledge, not real knowledge.

Want to bring them face to face with reality?

Just ask them to explain how vaccines work.