Is There a Vaccine Against Denialism?
I’m surprised the incidence of claustrophobia isn’t higher amongst scientists. Whether it’s know-it-all alternative medicine advocates, religious fanatics, or militant anti-environmentalists, science really is beset on all sides by a rogues’ gallery of knuckle-dragging bullshitters.
It’s a strange fact, however, that sometimes the knuckles of these bullshitters appear entirely unscuffed – that is, even the cleverest of writers can occasionally throw out an opinion of such shocking absurdity that one must step back in disbelief. This has, I am sad to say, recently been the case with critic and essayist Clive James, who has converted to the church of climate change denialism. Here, I’ll attempt to chop down the gnarled and pathetic-looking tree which James is barking up.
But that’s not all. Last Saturday I encountered a species of anti-sciencer rather more, shall we say, gauche and unlettered than Clive James. A mighty twenty-five of Edinburgh’s most indefatigable anti-vaxxers converged on the Scottish Parliament to express their opinion that ‘SWINE FLU IS A HOAX!’.
So which is the biggest hoax – climate change or swine flu? There’s only one way to find out – FIGHT!!!
The Clive James denialism story, such as it is, so far: James writes a dunderheaded piece on global warming, ‘In Praise of Scepticism‘, in which he claims that he ‘still can’t see that there is a scientific consensus’ on climate change. George Monbiot responds with an article which is equally daft in its own way, accusing James and other denialists of being so old and afraid of death that they react harshly to anything that reminds them of mortality. While I normally rather like Monbiot, this piece should be nominated for some kind of ‘Worst Amateur Psychology’ award. There are myriad reasons people become science-deniers, and there’s no compelling evidence that age is particularly important amongst them.
In any case, James is entirely unabashed. Last Friday, he was heard on BBC Radio 4 and seen in the BBC Magazine ‘responding’ to Monbiot with another well-written but utterly vacuous essay. Once again, the claim about a lack of consensus is made:
…from my own layman’s background reading I thought the reported scientific unanimity that global warming is man-made, and likely to be catastrophic, was always a more active area of scientific debate than you would have guessed from the way the media told the story.
This is exactly the sort of nonsensical claim one hears from idiot creationists, along the lines of ‘Steven Jay Gould didn’t agree with Richard Dawkins about evolution – this calls the reality of evolution into question’. This is so illogical it hardly bears dealing with, but it’s worth pointing out again that just because scientists disagree about how something happens, it in no way means that they disagree that it happens in the first place. Only someone with a gross misunderstanding of how science works would make a claim like the above. Sure, scientists disagree about climate change, but as pointed out here, it’s about esoteric stuff like ‘precisely how much stratospheric cooling can be attributed to ozone depletion rather than an enhanced greenhouse effect.’
The fact is that the overwhelming evidence published in the scientific journals suggests that man-made climate change is an unassailable fact. You can find a huge amount of that evidence, in the form of responses to sceptical questions, here. Not that James is bothered about things like evidence – he doesn’t give us any indication of where he’s been doing his ‘layman’s background reading’. The ExxonMobil site, maybe?
One of these few [denialist scientists I watched] was Prof Lindzen of MIT. I never could convince myself that the professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology knew less about the earth’s climate than I did, so I started to watch him. Hopeless on the media, Prof Lindzen is the sort of pundit with a four figure IQ who can somehow never figure out that you are supposed to talk into the microphone.
Here, James is trying to say that the denialist scientists are bumbling absent-minded professors who are being unfairly put down by the media-savvy alarmists in the environmentalist movement. In reality though, it appears Richard Lindzen has had a very successful media career, getting publicity for his denial of second-hand smoking, and writing loads of articles in top publications like the Wall Street Journal about his climate change scepticism. And, as an interesting aside, it appears that coal and oil companies are very happy to pay him lots of money to tell them nice things, possibly like ‘you’re not causing global warming’…
The number of scientists who endorsed the orthodox view increased also, but the number of those who didn’t went up instead of down. I couldn’t do the calculus, but I could count heads.
There were scores of eminent scientists who signed the 2007 open letter to the secretary general of the UN, and then later on there were hundreds quoted in the US senate minority reports.
It could be said that few of them had expertise in climate science, but that argument looked less decisive when you considered that climate science itself was exactly what they were bringing into question.
In another trick he appears to have learned from the Intelligent Design movement, James wants us to believe that totting up the numbers of scientists for and against an idea will uncover its truth or falsehood. Once again, it’s not the scientists, but the published evidence that matters. James points to none of this. Lists of names will not do. Unlike, say, scientists who may think things like theology are stuff and nonsense, anyone ‘bringing into question’ climate science has an Everest of evidence to block out.
It’s not even clear that ‘the number of those who didn’t [support the orthodox position]’ increased at any point. This bald assertion (apologies, Clive) is made with no evidential support whatsoever. And you know what? ‘No evidential support whatsover’ could be Clive James’ new catchphrase. We can only hope he realises he’s in the wrong and goes back to being the loveable and intelligent critic we once knew.
We move now from shooting fish in a barrel to taking a large amount of TNT and blowing up the fish packaging factory. A few days ago it became apparent that anti-science was hitting my own dear Edinburgh in the form of a swine flu vaccine protest. Keir has covered the lead-up and the aftermath, Mike has slagged the anti-vax website, and Alex has provided some extra info. What else can I add? Well, the anti-vaxxers gave us a couple of absolutely hilarious leaflets – including one of the most insane, paranoid and delusional things I’ve ever read. Here are a few choice quotes from a densely-typed double-sided sheet of A4 they were handing out (all the random capitalisation, underlines, bold type, and poor grammar is [sic]):
All Vaccines Contain These Unlisted Ingredients, which the drug industries worldwide keep hidden … GM tissues from diseased sheep, monkey, mouse, cow, guinea pig, goat, horse, calf, chick, rabbit, dog, etc; … blood from infected HIV positive homosexuals; microchips, for tracking & monitoring via satellite, controlling, dumbing down, causing time-release cerebral haemorrhaging, mood changing & killing; … AVOID ALL VACCINES AND INJECTIONS!
Fact#1 Vaccines DO NOT PROTECT !!!
Fact#2 All Vaccines Cause diseases
Fact#3 All Vaccines Spread the diseases that people are injected with
Fact#4 All Vaccines Destroy the immune system & nervous system
Fact#5 All Vaccines Can Kill within 3 hours
Fact#6 Vaccine toxins, remaining from childhood, cause serious diseases in adults
Fact#7 All vaccines, including mercury–free ones, are toxic, & can cause autism
Fact#8 Vaccination is the number one cause of cot death
Fact#9 HEALTH is the only immunity!
Epidemics of smallpox, all types of flu, AIDS, measles, etc., are all caused by vaccination… Evil has always been here to destroy the good. The only way to stop annihilation, is to unite & love one another as one family worldwide… With Israel wanting to remain world conquerors, as they have been for over 2000 years, they continue to pay £billions to fund global destruction… the target is to, therefore, destroy populations globally. Debilitating and deadly viruses & chemicals, created in laboratories, are constantly dispersed by planes as ‘chemtrails’… New York’s mayor flouridated the city the day before 9/11 to cause confusion.
Campaign against and stop evil dictation… Oust evil rulers! This is your Spiritual right!
Holy shit. It was like a visit to David Icke’s website, but in real life! It would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic. Oh no, wait – it is hilarious. The pamphlet is an absolute goldmine of wide-eyed, tinfoil hat craziness (I especially love the bit about ‘evil dictation’. TAKE THIS DOWN, NOW! MUAHAHAHA!). Clearly this stuff is just ravings, but what about the other antivax literature? The more sober leaflet I was given contained some stuff we can actually get our teeth into:
H1N1 MADE IN A LAB?
Virologist, Dr Adrian Gibbs claims ‘the consistent link with pig virus’s [sic] suggests that human activity was involved‘. Former US Naval Intelligence Officer Wayne Madson supports this claim saying that a top UN scientist suggested the strain had been genetically manufactured as a military biological weapon.
Zounds! But wait – on the other side of the leaflet…
Recently published research from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) is damming [sic] of the NHS Swine Flu Hotline stating that just 1 in 5 diagnosed with the illness actually had it, falling to a shocking 1 in 20 in the summer months. GP’s fared badly too, correctly assessing just 50% of cases. In just one week 36,000 of 40,000 Tamiflu prescriptions were wrongly prescribed needlessly raising the chance of virus mutation as well as hugely over-inflating official figures.
My diagnosis? These ignorant Luddites know they don’t like modern medicine, and they certainly know they don’t like vaccines, but they are so indiscriminate in their choice of paranoid attacks that they’re not bothered if it actually makes any sense. The first quote suggests that the virus was specially created to cause a pandemic for some shadowy greater purpose – ‘a corrupt global elite’s plan to vaccinate our nation’. The second suggests that the virus isn’t actually present in most cases. Doesn’t sound like this corrupt global elite are particularly, well, elite at spreading viruses, does it? They even end with a quote from Prince Philip:
‘If I were reincarnated, I would wish to be returned to Earth as a killer virus to lower human population levels.’
So, er, wait. Are viruses bad or not? If it’s going to lower population levels, should we not vaccinate against it? But I thought vaccines were evil! What the hell!?
As you may expect, looking at what the virologist quoted above actually said reveals he’s been almost sue-ably misquoted. The paper, available here (open-access, hurrah!), in which the remarks are made actually suggests two hypothetical origins for the sudden appearance of the current H1N1 strain: 1) It didn’t actually appear suddenly, it evolved in the usual way in pigs and we didn’t notice because we haven’t been sampling them for viruses properly, or 2) it didn’t actually appear suddenly, it appeared during a particular process of pig vaccination which wasn’t sterilised properly, and nobody noticed until it spread to humans. Nowhere is the idea that the virus was deliberately ‘made in a lab’ even hinted at. This is simply an example of quote mining at its finest.
Before we scrunch the leaflet up and cast it into the furnace, let’s have a look at the HPA report mentioned in the second quote. Are these morons seriously suggesting that there was some kind of conspiracy to over-diagnose swine flu so that Evil Big Pharma could vaccinate more people? From the sounds of it, the NHS was in a state of serious confusion (understandably, since swine flu symptoms aren’t always noticeably different from those of seasonal flu, and they were diagnosing over the phone), not under the control of cackling Pharma puppet-masters. This conspiracy theory falls in the same way as scores of others – it posits an utterly implausible level of organisation on the part of the conspirators. The ultimate rejoinder – Watergate. The fact that the US government couldn’t properly hush up a small burglary entirely discredits vast, arcane conspiracies like ‘9/11 was a controlled demolition’ or indeed ‘Big Pharma are controlling the NHS’ on the basis of mere probability.
While Clive James would be utterly appalled at my comparison of him to these anti-vax loons, there are clear similarities. A baseless distrust of scientific evidence staring them in the face? Check. A smug, arrogant ‘I know better’ attitude? Check. The spinning of tales about faceless authorities manipulating people? Check. The quoting of heroic figures battling against a corrupt elite? Check. All these qualities and more are there in climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers.
What can we do about it? Showing, as I hope I have above, that their ideas are frankly barking is only half the answer. The problem of psychological contagion rears its ugly head – the mere suggestion that a) climate change might be a load of old rubbish or b) vaccines could harm your children inherently makes people suspicious and less likely to follow the advice of authority figures to do anything about them. How can we possibly get people to trust evidence-based advice? I’m afraid that, my friends, is a subject for another post.