Arguments are essential in science. Rigorous evidence forms the backbone of scientific inquisition and is absolutely required if we are to make a steadfast claim about something. I have always had a keen interest in science myself, and it is no surprise that I have taken a liking to evidence based medical practice as I have moved into my adult years. Yet, recently I have been growing tired of the constant torrent of misinformation propagated by ‘anti-vaxxers’ around the world. As Australia has begun the widespread vaccination of its population against covid-19, I don’t know how much longer we should allow these staunchly anti-scientific people to spread their very often dangerous opinions.
I loved becoming lost in science books as a child. The sort that were presented as a compendium of primary and high school science curricula dressed up to engross me in just enough information to pique my interest, but not too much as to overwhelm and scare me away. I remember a central tenet of these texts was always an understanding that what the authors published at the time was correct to their knowledge, but I was to always keep in mind that the evidence may have changed since and with it the most correct facts. What is right one day might not be right the next. It all depends on the evidence. Whilst this lesson has stuck with me into my career as a healthcare professional, I am proud to say that the most mature realisation I took from this as a young scientist was to always remain sceptical.
Cycling was a big part of my youth. From starting with training wheels to competing in triathlons, I rode everywhere growing up. As did my friends. We all lived relatively close, and as such bicycles were the preferred method of transformation. I remember being at my friend’s house one day when he rode over a nail trying to impress a girl that lived across the street from him. What was meant to be an impressive display of my friend’s ability to manipulate his centre of gravity, turned into more of a shameful demonstration of Boyle’s gas law as his tire deflated causing him to fall into a bush just off the road. Dignity and bicycle tire fractured, but body mostly intact, we retreated into his house to repair the punctured tire, and hopefully his chances of impressing that girl across the street. As I patched up and began to pump air into the tire once more, my friend made a comment that has stuck with me for years. As he looked at the ever climbing dial on the bicycle pump he stated with absolute confidence, “How crazy is it that these bicycle tires have more air in them than my Dad’s truck tires!”. Thinking back to my science books I knew there was something wrong about this statement. Sure, the number here was likely higher than what would be in the truck tires, but these bicycle tires were tiny. I was sure that pressure and volume were related, but not the same thing.
I didn’t have the confidence to correct him at the time, but alarms inside me certainly sounded indicating that something was amiss with his thinking. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was my learned scepticism poking through yet again. Now, as Australia moves to vaccinate of our entire adult population from covid-19, my scepticism alarms have been ringing non-stop. Not in the sense of a personal hesitation to receive the vaccine, on the contrary I have already received my first dose of the Pfizer product, but more because of the amount of misinformation that is being spread. The conditions of the global pandemic have led to a perfect storm of lies and manipulative fear mongering in the anti-vaccine leaning community. Delivered with much of the same confidence as my friend’s misplaced understanding of the ideal gas laws, anti-vaxxers pout emotive anecdotal stories about strokes, heart attacks and coma in those they allegedly know who received a covid vaccine. They are unwavering in their campaign to enlighten, and fiercely aggressive to those who dare argue with them. The fact that most of it happens through online channels doesn’t help the fight against these people either. Despite having access to all the collective knowledge of human kind at the touch of a few buttons, these ignorant people choose to live in an echo chamber of confirmation bias, only pursuing and spreading the information sources that align with their perceived understanding of what is right. They are, like me, sceptical of the world around them and sceptical of the stories being told by the mainstream scientific bodies.
I think it is because of this fact that I have, until recently, been fairly sympathetic toward people who hold views that are incongruent with mainstream medical and pharmaceutical literature. History is plagued with examples of individuals and small groups going against the grain of ‘modern science’ at the time, presenting a radically different view that was ridiculed at the time, but in retrospect turned out to be surprisingly scientifically progressive. One well cited example is that of Ignaz Semmelweis and his aseptic technique, the hand hygiene martyr who was only formally recognised in the scientific community after his premature ironic death to a presumed infection. We can’t pick and choose whose sceptical beliefs to be tolerant of because there is no way of knowing who is right and who is wrong, who will be the next Semmelweis. It is the job of well constructed scientific studies to determine where the truth really lies. Not with anecdotal stories of pseudo-illness after receiving a vaccination shared exclusively on a cancerous social media page like facebook, but with a review of many rigorous, well designed, multi-centre, double blinded, randomised control trials; the highest tier of evidence. Furthermore, the data should be clearly and honestly presented, avoiding any confusion or deception in the interpretation of the results. I think that it is on this note that I have pivoted against anti-vaxxers.
Whilst I do still believe that many anti-vaxxers are wanting to do the best for themselves and their families, seeing themselves as a modern day Semmelweis, I just can’t respect them because of their stark opposition to the scientific model. I support their right to be sceptical of the world around them, particularly that of which they don’t fully understand, but there comes a time where the weight of the world begins to bare down on you. Whilst Semmelweis had no formal evidence to support his claims that 19th Century doctors were bringing from surgery to surgery disease covered hands, the bodies of evidence opposing the anti-vaxxer arguments are so monolithic, so widespread, so well constructed that their likely well intentioned scepticism is really now nothing more than ignorant, stubborn idiocy. It is not good enough for them to continue to base their opposing beliefs on anecdotal stories they read online. Firstly, the evidence behind these views exists in an environment of confounding variables and reporting biases with non-existent reproducibility; the lowest tier of evidence. Secondly, their misplaced beliefs are beginning to cause real harm to the communities around them. Unlike studies that are stopped early due to harm, anti-vaxxer misinformation that causes harm is used only to further propagate their agenda contorting the truth into a bias riddled self-fulfilling prophecy. Given the magnitude of the evidence against them, the time has come for the modern world to stop allowing these people to share their dangerous opinions.
Science has come a long way in how we prove the claims made during arguments. I strongly resonate with those who are sceptical of that which they observe in the world, but only if they are respectful of both sides of the argument. Anti-vaxxers live in an echo-chamber of misinformation and low quality evidence and seem to blindly refute any argument that is slated against them. No longer should the world be tolerant of these people who refuse to yield to the weight of rigorous scientific literature. Their ignorance is only causing more and more harm, and as they begin to indoctrinate more and more of the people around them to their disgustingly ill informed way of thinking, I am certain we will begin to move backwards in science as these people slowly devolve into something similar to those who disregarded Semmelweis for washing the blood off his hands between surgeries.