Here’s why no one has taken the anti-vax challenge

Portrait anxious young man biting his nails fingers freaking out

I threw down the anti-vax gauntlet yesterday and offered a relatively simple challenge to those who believe passionately that vaccines are dangerous, ineffective or both. It’s been seen by nearly 75,000 people so far and not a single one has taken it, let alone passed it.

I’m not surprised since passing the challenge requires being truly educated about vaccines and anti-vaxxers recognize that they’re not.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When asked to demonstrate their knowledge, anti-vaxxers run and hide.[/pullquote]

Let’s look at the challenge again and what we’ve learned from the fact that anti-vaxxers don’t dare take it.

The challenge is both simple and straightforward:

  1. Make a claim
  2. Provide 3 citations from peer review journals to support it
  3. Provide relevant quotes from the papers (not the abstracts)
  4. Situate the studies within the preponderance of the scientific evidence
  5. Explain why your citations take precedence over scientific consensus

What have we learned:

No one objected to the details of the challenge.

Even anti-vaxxers recognize that the requirements — 3 citations from peer review journals, actually reading those citations, comparing those citations to the existing literature and explaining why we ought to believe the offered citations as opposed to the existing literature — are eminently reasonable. No one suggested that the requirements are too stringent or too difficult to accomplish by people who are actually knowledgeable about vaccines.

So what’s the problem? It’s not the ability to provide citations. Anti-vaxxers typically litter their comments with citations.

The apparently insurmountable threshold problem is likely the requirement to READ the citations; that’s the only way to provide relevant quotes from the bodies of these papers.

The truth is that anti-vaxxers don’t read the literature they cite. In many cases they couldn’t understand that literature even if they read it; they lack the basic education required.

So how do they find the relevant citations? They copy them from a professional anti-vaxxer who runs a website or wrote a book. In other words, they don’t know what the scientific literature shows; they are forced to rely on someone to spoon feed them the bite sized pieces of the literature that they are able to swallow. Hence the papers they cite may have titles that seem impressive to anti-vaxxers, but fail to prove their purported claims or ignore their claims altogether.

Even if anti-vaxxers were capable of reading and quoting the relevant papers, they can’t possibly situate them within the bulk of the scientific literature on the topic.

It isn’t merely that they are completely ignorant of the bulk of the scientific literature on a particular claim (e.g. vaccines purportedly cause autism, vaccines purportedly don’t work), although they are ignorant. It’s that they don’t understand that a scientific paper is not in and of itself “proof” of anything.

Science — real science, not the stripped down version of the anti-vaxxer’s imagination — is about placing findings within context. To do that, you have to master the bulk of the literature. It doesn’t mean that you are required to read every paper on the particular area, just that you have an understanding of what is in the most cited papers within that area.

How do you find those papers? If you are truly educated in the topic, you will know them because you’ve read them and seen them cited repeatedly.

If you aren’t educated on the topic, the Science Citation Index will be a useful guide. The SCI reports which later articles have cited any particular earlier article, or have been cited most frequently. The fact that a particular paper has been cited by other scientists the most does not make that paper true. It merely makes it possible for the uninitiated to determine the current consensus of opinion on a particular claim.

The most difficult part of the anti-vax challenge is to explain why your chosen citations take precedence over the consensus understanding.

That requires not simply basic familiarity with the literature on the topic, but a deep understanding of the scientific principles at issue.

Why did I offer the anti-vax challenge?

Because I wanted to illustrate the difference between really being educated and doing your research, as opposed to reading and repeating propaganda written by some anti-vax quack.

Anti-vaxxers like to preen that they are ever so much more educated than the rest of us sheeple, but when asked to demonstrate their knowledge, they run and hide. They recognize their own claims for what they are — nonsense that they can neither quote nor defend.