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.

67 Responses to “Anti-vaxxers, just because it’s a citation doesn’t make it true or relevant”

  1. Mike Stevens
    November 7, 2016 at 7:23 am #

    They just love their citations if they can get them.
    It’s like they are so desperate for some scientific legitimacy to back up their anti- and pseudo-science witterings.
    But they often don’t know what a scientific study really is – they will post links to OpEd views on the internet, hardly ever refer back to the primary source, they often post dead links, or links to a website who is merely re-interpreting the original research for them, or to an abstract they think supports their POV, only for us to find the opposite is true if one examines the study.
    Even when they directly cite an original study, they cherrypick, misquote, misinterpret or re-interpret the study, pretending it means something it doesn’t. They haven’t a clue about judging what is good research, for instance thinking satisfaction surveys of homeopathy users online carries equal (or more) weight that a major systematic review or metanalysis of the topic, or thinking a childhood vaccine article by a retired palaeontologist is more believable than one by a pediatric infectious diseases specialist.

    And of course, when the other side cites a comprehensive scientific evidence base, the antivaxers/homeopaths etc often come up with a snarky reference to “Why most published research findings are wrong” (ignoring the delicious irony, and also making more the same errors about misinterpreting studies that I mentioned above)

    • Jonathan Graham
      November 7, 2016 at 8:21 am #

      I think I notice three main types of attack:

      i) Talk about evidence but weigh it as if all evidence is equally strong. Not just small N studies vs large N studies but accounts from some researcher somewhere (often exacerbated by quoting out of context or a quote that can’t be traced to a primary source or to a person of unknown status) being treated as a counter to a well controlled, well blinded, properly powered study. A related approach is to claim that some flaw (real or imagined) in such a study renders is equal to low-quality evidence or makes it of no value at all. This approach also includes the inability to recognize that prior probability takes a role in evaluating evidence. Two similarly powered studies – one supporting homeopathy and one supporting vaccination do not result in considered the two ideas equally likely – even if, for whatever reason we had to ignore all other studies on these two sciences. Homeopathy is, at the outset much less likely to be true than vaccination. In particular it is much less likely to be true than the study itself being wrong. So the overall likelihood – the posterior probability of homeopathy is still low.

      ii) Talk about evidence but explicitly or implicitly devalue evidence on one side. Obviously this is Ron Roy’s main argument.

      iii) Talk about evidence but are unable to connect the evidence to your argument. This is Lowell Hubbs in a nutshell. He makes all sorts of strong claims and can dump lots of references at you but can never seem to form them into a cogent argument.

      • Mike Stevens
        November 7, 2016 at 7:41 pm #

        Good points, particularly about the role of prior probability in evaluating evidence.
        I suspect 99.99% of antivaxers have never even heard of Bayes.

        • Jonathan Graham
          November 8, 2016 at 7:24 am #

          Another interesting thing about Bayes is it (combined with something called the law of total probability) tells us that as long as there is a clear expectation of an event in a hypothesis we can count absence of that event as evidence against that hypothesis.

          So in a very strictly defined sense: absence of evidence IS evidence of absence

  2. Chris Preston
    November 7, 2016 at 3:25 am #

    It is not only anti-vaxxers that do this, but a whole range of other science deniers. It is part of the cherry picking process: only select those papers that appear to support your pre-existing conclusion, no matter how bad and insignificant they are and trumpet them over and over again, copying out quotes, removed from context – or even not quotes written by others.

    Of course if the scientific papers do not exist, then the preferred approach is to make up the papers by trying to pass off random ravings on the internet as science. Stuff published in that journal whale .to.

    In this brave new world of predatory open access publishing, there is now no need to make the papers up. You can put your fevered imaginings down on paper and have it published in the gloriously sounding Entropy.

  3. Sue
    November 6, 2016 at 6:29 pm #

    You can tell a person doesn’t understand references or citations when they call them “links”. That means they found something on-line (generally just a copied url or just the abstract), copied and pasted the “link”, likely has no access to the study at all.

  4. LaMont
    November 4, 2016 at 9:44 pm #

    OT: Literally feeling sick over the election. Not sure what I will do if he wins. I’ve always been so proud to be an American despite America’s flaws. I always believed in working through the system, and that great changes, both incremental and punctuated, are possible over time. Now all I feel is fear and disgust. My left-wing friends (I, a liberal/mainstream Dem, am the most conservative person I know) are telling me HRC is evil. I hear everywhere that the two candidates are “the same.” I feel like they’re gaslighting Team HRC, I feel like they’re religious in their obsession with purity and not being worldly, and I feel drained – I feel like this isn’t funny anymore. Even the Daily Show’s apocalyptic future Halloween episode wasn’t even trying to be funny!

    • guest
      November 4, 2016 at 10:00 pm #

      *hugs* I’m incredibly stressed too, and it’s preventing me from doing some important things in my life. I don’t know what will happen if either candidate wins (revolution? implosion?) but whatever it is we will face it, and fight it if necessary.

      • LaMont
        November 5, 2016 at 12:39 pm #

        I actually posted elsewhere that the election is sort of like what I imagine pregnancy is like – terror, excitement, mood swings, sleep difficulties, nausea, sanctimonious asses telling you you’re an impure person. It’s just that in Election 2016, heavy drinking is mandatory.

        • kfunk937
          November 6, 2016 at 2:30 pm #

          The Surgeon General actually issued a warning about EtOH-induced acute liver damage, suggesting a possible 70K additional cases above background rates.

          It may have been tongue-in-cheek.

    • Azuran
      November 4, 2016 at 10:59 pm #

      I’m not even American, and your election is stressing me and scaring me more than any local election I’ve been though.
      Planning an ‘election night’ with friends, and it’s basically being planned like a ‘scary movie night’

      • demodocus
        November 5, 2016 at 9:24 pm #

        I can’t decide whether to watch or not. I expect nightmares either way

        • Azuran
          November 5, 2016 at 9:58 pm #

          For us it’s more of an ‘omg Trump can’t win this’
          I don’t really get all the hate about Hillary. If anything, she’s basically like every single other politician out there, nothing new. If she wins, it’s basically business as usual and we get more of the same. It’s very far from the worst thing that could happen.
          With Trump………. all we can hope for is basically for the rest of the politicians to just carry on with their jobs and ignore anything he might have to say about anything.

          • demodocus
            November 5, 2016 at 10:23 pm #

            I expect nightmares whether I watch the coverage or not. I won’t have any from Mrs. Clinton winning.

          • Azuran
            November 5, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

            ah, makes more sense, sry.

          • BeatriceC
            November 5, 2016 at 11:54 pm #

            Hillary Clinton has a vagina and breasts. This makes her behavior orders of magnitude worse than the same behavior out of a penis owner. It’s the way it works, don’t ya know!

          • Who?
            November 6, 2016 at 1:18 am #

            Or, as I like to say:

            A woman’s place is in the wrong.

          • Azuran
            November 6, 2016 at 8:11 am #

            Yea, but still, I get the woman part, and even the immigration part, we have bigots too.
            But from up there in Canada, it’s really dumbfounding to see your politician argue so openly against abortion, to actively fight against having proper health care and against any kind of sensible gun control.
            Or the hate against Barack Obama. Here, he’s pretty much considered the best American President ever.

          • MI Dawn
            November 7, 2016 at 7:51 am #

            Barack Obama has 3 strikes against him: He’s black, he lived in a Muslim country as a child, and he’s a Democrat. 3 reasons out of many that stupid people hate him.

          • N
            November 6, 2016 at 1:06 pm #

            Some women can make it to the “big boss” chair of a country. Look at Angela Merkel…

          • The Computer Ate My Nym
            November 6, 2016 at 7:06 am #

            Clinton’s an unusually honest politician in terms of statements that she makes. She’s proposed ending the Hyde amendment, increasing immigration, and expanding healthcare access. She’s got actual sensible things to say about autism and doesn’t say a single thing about “cure”. I don’t see the nightmare fuel in that. I see things that I’d like to be otherwise: she’s too wimpy on gun control, too interventionalist, and too supportive of business, IMHO, but no one capable of getting close to being elected in the US is going to be anything else, and Clinton can be pushed in the right direction. Her election would open the possibility of electing a Warren or Sanders next time. Trump’s, in the very best case scenario, would leave us further to the right.

          • demodocus
            November 6, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

            My nightmares aren’t about HRC winning, they’re about her losing!

          • The Computer Ate My Nym
            November 6, 2016 at 3:48 pm #

            Mine too. Literally. Plus the anxiety attack when I realized that if Trump wins not only will he be the leader of the country I live in, he’ll be my boss. Well, I knew that was a danger when I took this job. If it happens I’ll try to hold on long enough to be able to claim to know the system and then sell my soul to Big Pharma for a chance to get my kid out of the US.

          • N
            November 6, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

            That is exactly what we think in my family too. Hillary = the same business as usual, no big changes. Trump = omg/nightmare/the world won’t be the same anymore/they can’t do that, or can they?
            (somewhere in the middle of Europe here.)

          • BeatriceC
            November 6, 2016 at 1:21 pm #

            I agree. She’s “same shit, different day”. She’s got some good stuff, some crappy stuff, and some pretty typical for US politicians stuff. All the shit people harp on her about wouldn’t even bat eyelashes if she was a man.

            Trump scares the living shit out of me. It’s not that I think he can affect policy changes too swiftly and dramatically. After all, there’s still two other government branches that have a say in things. What scares me is the type of people who will be emboldened to act violently towards minorities, immigrants, women and the LGBT population with him in the white house.

          • momofone
            November 6, 2016 at 2:01 pm #

            I think the argument that it wouldn’t bat eyelashes if she were a man diminishes legitimate concerns. Mine would and do and have batted either way.

          • The Bofa on the Sofa
            November 6, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

            Not at all. George W Bush White House “lost” 22 million emails. How many eyes were batted? Nine.

            It shows that if it were a Republican male, no one would bat an eye. Not even speculation, it’s a demonstrated fact.

          • momofone
            November 6, 2016 at 2:59 pm #

            I get that. I just don’t see that as the only perspective.

          • BeatriceC
            November 6, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

            Actually, I think it highlights two distinct problems:

            1. That women and men are held to different standards and

            2. That there’s all kind of horrible stuff going on in our current political system that shouldn’t be overlooked but is.

      • Mishimoo
        November 5, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

        Australian here, and the American election is causing a fair amount of stress for us too. I’m still not sure if I’m willing to watch.

    • Allie
      November 5, 2016 at 10:49 am #

      I feel you. I’m Canadian. Hubs and I (who happens to be brown) usually take a trip to Seattle in mid- to late-November for our anniversary, and this year we thought about visiting his cousin in California. I confess, I’m actually thinking of not going this year, as I’m a little nervous about whether there could be violence following the election, and I’m afraid some nut could think he’s an “immigrant” (in California, people often think he’s Mexican based on his appearance). I’m sure I’m being ridiculous, but I just can’t shake the bad feelings. I can’t wait for this whole business to be over, and I hope never to see or hear from DT again. I understand that HRC isn’t perfect, but who the hell is? She still has intelligence, experience, and emotional maturity in orders of magnitude above DT.

    • BeatriceC
      November 5, 2016 at 2:32 pm #

      I live in California. There’s almost no chance that the state’s electoral votes will go to anybody but Clinton. Still, I’m voting just to get her raw numbers up. I’m really, really hoping the big, typically liberal states are enough to carry the election this year. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever been truly frightened about the outcome of an election.

      • Nick Sanders
        November 5, 2016 at 3:57 pm #

        I live in Tennessee. There’s even less chance of my state going Clinton than there is of yours going Trump, but I voted for her anyway, for the same reason you did.

        • momofone
          November 6, 2016 at 9:34 am #

          I’m in Mississippi. Trump will win here. I’m not a fan of either candidate, but will be voting for Clinton because the other possibility is just nightmarish to me. For me it’s a hold-your-nose-and-do-it thing; I’m not necessarily a supporter of hers on her own, but he is just not an option in any way. Going in months ago, I couldn’t see voting for either of them, but I can absolutely not support someone who doesn’t support bodily autonomy, especially given the Supreme Court appointments that will be made during this term.

          • BeatriceC
            November 6, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

            I’m not her biggest fan, but she’s “same shit, different day” for me. She’s part of the political power machine in the US. She does normal bad stuff for a US politician. I can live with more of the same.

          • momofone
            November 8, 2016 at 9:15 pm #

            He’s won Mississippi. 🙁

        • The Computer Ate My Nym
          November 6, 2016 at 6:16 pm #

          I’d say that given this election, no state is a done deal in either direction. The stakes are incredibly high. Vote, even if it feels futile. (Yeah, I know you already did, but maybe some lurker hasn’t yet.)

      • MI Dawn
        November 7, 2016 at 7:54 am #

        I’m in New Jersey, which is solidly blue also according to 538, but I’m still scared spitless too. I am working from home tomorrow 1)to make sure I’ll be able to get over and vote (my work hours have been weird enough that if I didn’t, I might not make the polls) and 2)if there’s any violence around, I want to be safe and sound in my home, NOT on mass transit.

    • The Computer Ate My Nym
      November 5, 2016 at 5:20 pm #

      I’m seriously thinking about moving my retirement fund into all international funds in anticipation of the potential post-election crash that is virtually certain to occur if Trump wins. But if he wins, what economy is not going to crash?

  5. Dr Kitty
    November 4, 2016 at 4:48 pm #

    OT: a local baby died due to co-sleeping. The coroner has appropriately issued some warnings.

    • swbarnes2
      November 4, 2016 at 5:38 pm #

      I guess the death happened a year ago, and I guess the inquest just ended?

      And what as with blaming the “induced birth” when the baby was a month old already?

      • Dr Kitty
        November 4, 2016 at 6:53 pm #

        The induction would be relevant if it was for IUGR, or there was chorioamnionitis after PROM or something similar.

        Basically, if the induction was for a medical reason which made the baby more susceptible to SUDI or suffocation, then it is relevant.

        But I don’t know if this is so much SUDI rather than accidental suffocation of a baby who happened to be more vulnerable due to a respiratory tract infection, age and other factors.

        • swbarnes2
          November 7, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

          But then the induction was the symptom of a problem that made the baby more vulnerable, but the reporting makes it sound like the induction itself was part of the cause.

      • mabelcruet
        November 5, 2016 at 6:46 am #

        Babies who have inherent vulnerabilities are at increased risk of SUDI. This includes babies who are premies, IUGR, one of twins, maternal smoking during pregnancy, infection during Labour, placental dysfunction for whatever reason. Particularly for deaths within the first month of life, the pregnancy and delivery needs to be considered carefully as the reason for induction may be relevent. This baby had infection, but was also co sleeping, and was inherently vulnerable for quite a number of reasons.

    • mostlyclueless
      November 4, 2016 at 5:47 pm #

      Well, fuck. I had no intention of cosleeping with this baby but sometimes during the 3am or 4am feeding it becomes impossible to stay awake.

      • N
        November 6, 2016 at 1:14 pm #

        You do what you can for the safety of your baby. If the options are dropping baby to the floor because you are too exhausted and need sleep, or co-sleep in the safest way possible, well … Having a baby IS exhausting. And everyone NEEDS sleep. As a mother of 3 I can tell you only this: It will get better, it will get better, it will get better…..

  6. Nick Sanders
    November 4, 2016 at 11:44 am #

    OT: I just got a job after being unemployed for what feels like forever! Hooray!

    • momofone
      November 4, 2016 at 11:48 am #

      Yay!!! Congratulations!

    • Heidi
      November 4, 2016 at 12:28 pm #


    • Sonja Henie-Spinning Jenny!
      November 4, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

      Congrats! I take it we won’t see you as much here. That’s too bad, but great for you!

    • Roadstergal
      November 4, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

      Wait, you weren’t making enough to live on with all of the Pharma Shill Lucre? :p

      • Nick Sanders
        November 4, 2016 at 7:07 pm #

        They only pay me in vaccine vouchers. Lousy cheapskates…

    • Charybdis
      November 4, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

      Yay! That’s wonderful!

      But you are still going to check in here, right?

      • Nick Sanders
        November 4, 2016 at 7:05 pm #

        Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.

        Trained ones, maybe, especially if they have riders, but not wild ones.

    • guest
      November 4, 2016 at 2:02 pm #


    • Amazed
      November 4, 2016 at 3:44 pm #

      Congrats! Thrilled for you!

    • Dr Kitty
      November 4, 2016 at 4:50 pm #

      Great news!
      I hope you find it enjoyable and rewarding!

    • Sarah
      November 4, 2016 at 5:41 pm #

      Are Big Pharma going to be paying you to force epidurals on people who aren’t even giving birth?

      • Nick Sanders
        November 4, 2016 at 7:04 pm #

        Only if they figured out how to sneak them into snackfoods.

        • Roadstergal
          November 4, 2016 at 7:09 pm #

          I happily await my GMO C-section!

          • swbarnes2
            November 4, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

            I’m not so sure…the scalpel blade is a 100% GMO Frito.

        • Sarah
          November 5, 2016 at 10:52 am #

          Well, there’s your gap in the market.

    • Who?
      November 4, 2016 at 6:17 pm #

      Well done that man! Hope it goes really well for you.

    • The Computer Ate My Nym
      November 4, 2016 at 8:16 pm #

      Conga rats!

    • Mishimoo
      November 5, 2016 at 9:53 pm #

      Oooooh congratulations, that is awesome!!

    • Mike Stevens
      November 7, 2016 at 7:08 am #


    • MI Dawn
      November 7, 2016 at 7:47 am #

      Great news! Enjoy your new job!

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