The Course of Reason


June 16, 2011

Sean Gillespie shares his thoughts on 60 Minutes' anti-vaccine story.

This article originally appears on the Air Capital Skeptics' blog.

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy just posted this story with the below video. Go read what he has to say about this as well because he brings up some good points that I am not going to repeat here.

I have two major problems with the anti-vax nonsense here. First, you can see how incredibly deceptive the anti-vax "doctor" is by using the title to imply medical knowledge, but admitting that she has no medical expertise when pressed on the issue. Creationists use this tactic often as well earning meaningless or unrelated "doctorates" and then using that title to imply expertise in unrelated areas. Unfortunately, "doctor" is not generally a protected title and most people are not aware that anyone can use it. Quacks and con artists take advantage of this with great success. So next time you hear someone claiming to be a "doctor" be sure to ask the relevant questions as to why they are using that title.

Second, even without the anti-vax influence the average person is grossly misinterpreting the evidence, risks, and probabilities associated with vaccinations. You hear "I don't know how effective they are" and people explaining that their kids haven't been vaccinated and they didn't get sick so vaccines aren't that effective. This shows an incredible lack of knowledge of history. These parents are living in a period where infection rates have been driven from previously high levels to very low levels through the use of vaccines and then use their individual experience (sample sizes of 1-2 usually) to determine vaccines may not be effective. This is like saying that dusting every week is not effective for removing dust because you never see large dust buildups. Stop dusting for a few months and you will see what happens the same way if you stop vaccinating for a few years. The evidence is pretty clear that vaccines do work, so the only real argument to be had is the risk.

The risks cited are typically more often wrapped around "big pharma" conspiracies than the actual risks. In the video the mother is happy to point out that studies by "big pharma" might just be marketing ploys to sell vaccines. This is actually a pretty valid concern because more than a few pharmaceutical companies have been caught doing some pretty underhanded shit. The problem is that you are claiming that peer reviewed studies are suspect, meaning that you now must invoke a rather large conspiracy in order to support that claim. You see the mother try to shift the burden of proof onto the reporter after making this claim. This is pretty much par for the course for this type of extraordinary claim. This completely ignores the basic economics of the problem where maintaining a global conspiracy to sell supposedly dangerous low profit vaccines is somehow a good business idea.

As far as the actual risks go, ideally this should be a relatively easy issue to resolve for most people. There are most certainly risks associated with vaccines. Real negative consequences and side effects do happen. I think it is a good idea to ask about these side effects when making a decision about vaccinations. This is just good medicine. When you get the flu vaccine they ask you a series of questions meant to determine the risk and if you should receive the shot, the flu mist, or nothing at all. When the real risks associated with getting a vaccine are greater than the risks of not getting the vaccine then you shouldn't get that vaccine.

The small pox vaccine is another good example. When I was given this vaccine I was told that something like .1% of people have a negative reaction, and .1% of those people die from that reaction (the numbers are based on memory and may be inaccurate). Due to the virtually non-existent risk of getting this disease most people today never receive it, however, military members deploying to certain areas will get it. Even then, any members that have certain skin conditions that could raise the risk of the vaccine, such as eczema, are completely exempt until such a time that they may actually have been exposed to the real virus. I was even lucky enough to be part of that first .1%. I spent three days barely able to move my head or arms and only able to drink water. I was absolutely miserable. However, going into a war zone where there is a known risk of small pox having been developed as a biological weapon it was still a worthwhile risk to take. I have seen the outcome of the disease and I would much rather suffer some swollen glands and brutal headaches for a few days than what the victims of that disease go through.

At the end of the day always vaccinate or never vaccinate are both pretty useless positions (though never vaccinate certainly is a much more dangerous position). Any given vaccination needs to be examined as a risk-benefit decision. The reality is that in the majority of cases it is well worth the risk.


About the Author: Sean Gillespie

Sean Gillespie's photo
Sean Gillespie is a Fort Hays State University graduate and is pursuing a Physics degree at Wichita State University while preparing for further graduate studies. He is the founder and President of Air Capital Skeptics.




Guests may not post URLs. Registration is free and easy.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

The Council for Secular Humanism's magazine (available at is called...

Creative Commons License

The Course of Reason is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

CFI blog entries can be copied or distributed freely, provided:

  • Credit is given to the Center for Inquiry and the individual blogger
  • Either the entire entry is reproduced or an excerpt that is considered fair use
  • The copying/distribution is for noncommercial purposes