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What do vaccine sceptics have in common with climate change deniers?

Climate change deniers and vaccine sceptics present policy makers with complex challenges. In the wake of the recent adverse finding against one of the “poster boys of the global anti vaccination movement”, Dr Andrew Wakefield, there may be some lessons for those advocating for effective climate change policies.

So argues Dr Julie Leask, a social scientist in the medical faculty at the University of Sydney, who has done much research and thinking on the issues around public acceptance, or otherwise, of vaccination. She writes:

“The climate change issue could learn a lot from immunisation debates. In both there is a pressing need for action to prevent human suffering; a minority element attempting to stymie progress; and a scientific community looking on in dismay offering well intended fact-for-fact rebuttals that are more likely to entrench existing positions because they are along ideological/world views.

Climate deniers themselves are a bit like vaccine sceptics. Outspoken and totally unshakable in their views. Dr Andrew Wakefield – the doctor who published the 1998 Lancet study reporting a link between the MMR vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease and autism – is no exception.

In the week that his theory seems to have finally been put to bed in the minds of the media, there are some lessons for those battling climate skepticism. When the study was first published, the scientific and medical community rapidly came out to defend the safety of MMR. These included the World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the British Medical Association – the cream of the crop.

Despite this, the charismatic Wakefield put forward a convincing case. Efforts by  doctors and governments to urge parents to not worry about the vaccine fell on deaf ears while the UK watched, dismayed as vaccinations rates declined. Public health workers scrambled to address the problem and websites like the UK’s “MMR The Facts” proliferated.

Only 12 years later do the worldwide media seem to be completely putting to rest the question of a link. What has triggered this? It wasn’t that Wakefield’s study contained only 12 children. Nor was it that eight of the children had their bowel symptoms appear after developmental problems were reported  – not before – as Wakefield was proposing in his theory. Nor was it that there was no comparison group and nor that the researcher doing the bowel scans was unblinded to whether the children had received MMR – bare essentials in reducing scientific bias.

The life and death of the MMR-autism theory has been less about the science than about the man himself and deeper divides. Wakefield’s fall from grace has been particularly dramatic. He was masterful at casting himself as the brave whistleblower, willing to put his career as a doctor on the line in the name of ‘truth’. He was urged on by parents who found a champion for their deeply held views and an anti-vaccine lobby always seeking opportunities to advance their cause.

Now the GMC have ruled he “showed a callous disregard for the distress and pain” of the children in his study and that his conduct in certain aspects of the conduct of his study was “irresponsible” and “unethical”.

His intentions were probably well meaning at the start. His earlier research showed him to be a gastroenterologist intent on finding a cause for inflammatory bowel disease. The problem was he strayed too far beyond his specialty, fell in love with his MMR hypothesis, and got drunk on the adoration of anti-MMR groups.

The tragedy is that many parents needlessly worried about a vaccine that could prevent three potentially serious diseases. This worry turned into vaccine delay or outright rejection by up to 35% of parents in some parts of London. The inevitable outbreaks arrived, and children got sick, with at least one death.

As predicted, the folly of MMR vaccine rejection is reaping its unhappy results. Similarly, with the climate change debate, the majority look on in dismay as the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions is delayed by the views of a minority.

To address this problem we need to understand why it comes about. A key ingredient in these sorts of controversies is the outspoken and articulate naysayer who, like Wakefield, play the science card masterfully, giving credence to ideas that have little acceptance by the vast majority.

Then there is the media’s tendency to amplify the controversy via the journalistic practice of giving equal attention to both sides of a debate. In vaccine controversies we might get the impression that views are balanced 50:50 when they are in fact about 97:3.

These debates often form along ideological lines: the primacy of personal responsibility, with a rejection and profound distrust of government intervention.

With vaccination, this distrust extends towards orthodox medicine and its technologies. Stories are recalled of wonder drugs gone wrong – thalidomide being one example.

Similarly climate change can be located within other issues which failed to live up to predictions: apocalypses like the cold war, Y2K, avian and now swine flu. Can we really trust the experts?

Climate change will eventually be addressed. But unfortunately, action is being delayed with serious consequences. To address climate scepticism, it would be useful to look to other scientific controversies which have also caused harm. From across the disciplines we can learn from each other.”

Comments 13

  1. Jeff Waugh says:

    Y2K is actually a good example of an global problem that we managed to address. Perhaps we succeeded because to the casual observer, it was a wholly abstract idea, but to the audience that mattered (software developers), it was easily grasped and relatively easy to fix — sure, it was a big task, but mostly a simple one.

    Climate change doesn’t seem as abstract — the average person in the street can say “hey, it’s very hot this summer” or “gosh it’s snowing all over the UK”, or worse, “look at the shape of that chart!” … but as we keep saying, weather isn’t climate.

    The apparent cause and effect of vaccines (as described by anti-vaxx dopes) wouldn’t seem as abstract to a parent desperately trying not to believe that they’re grieving. It’s a comfortable way to attribute blame, and can even sound vaguely science-y. Who can blame them?

    Remember, there were Y2K deniers, too!

  2. Most Peculiar Mama says:

    “…To address climate scepticism, it would be useful to look to other scientific controversies which have also caused harm…”

    With AGW allegedly going to heat the planet to hell and move us all to a more tropical-like existence, the time is right to re-visit the best ‘vaccination’ for malaria.

    How many MILLIONS of children would still be alive today if DDT wasn’t banned?

  3. Captain Col says:

    A very tenuous link between the tactics used by both sides of two totally different issues. The implication is that climate sceptics (like me) are too stupid to see the ‘good’ science of the AGW advocates and cling to a few minor misconceptions. Sorry, but I have the time to read all about both sides of the debate. I’ve changed from a believer to sceptic based on many good scientific arguments which were much harder to find in the media a few years ago. So much for 50:50 media debates.

    And I’ve had myself vaccinated, for which there was less need for debate.

  4. JamesH says:

    “How many MILLIONS of children would still be alive today if DDT wasn’t banned?”
    When did Most Peculiar Mama stop beating her children?

    Since DDT was never banned for malaria eradication, there is no answer to this question.

    Hypothetically, if DDT had been banned for this purpose, more countries would have invested sooner in insecticide-impregnated bed-nets, which are more effective and cost less. This would probably have saved on the order of 100,000 lives or so.

    CC says “I’ve changed from a believer to sceptic based on many good scientific arguments”. Name three, with links to peer reviewed publications supporting them, which have not since been refuted by further work.

  5. Most Peculiar Mama says:

    “…Since DDT was never banned for malaria eradication, there is no answer to this question…”

    Unsurpisingly, you’re the only one implying it was.

    “…links to peer reviewed publications…”

    The peer review process is D.E.A.D. Rendered a monumental joke by corrupt scientists and carpetbagging bureaucrats.

    For you to invoke its inviolate majesty is nothing short of desperate irrational stupidity.

    Everyone else has moved on…you should too.

  6. JamesH says:

    MPM, are you incapable of reading your own posts, or just incapable of reading?

  7. sherinakken says:

    Its really easy to let the press and drug companies & TV ads tell you what to think
    But………
    #1 – just because a journal retracts it 12 years later, does mean it isn’t valid (journal owned by a company beholden to many drug companies)
    #2 – he never said MMR caused autism – Here is the summary of the paper – read for yourself
    http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2897%2911096-0/fulltext
    #3 – full paper here, that Lancet retracted –
    http://www.autismresourceconnection.com/documents/Ileal-colonic-lymphoid.pdf
    last paragraph “We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. In most cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps,& rubella immunisation. Further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome & its possible relation to this vaccine.”
    #4 it is a paper on 12 children – children with chronic enterocolitis & regressive developmental disorder. A paper – not a study
    #5 – other studies
    http://www.la-press.com/clinical-presentation-and-histologic-findings-at-ileocolonoscopy-in-ch-a1816
    http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/101/3/383

    Read for yourself – that is hard for most……..don’t let political machinations by drug companies and the powers that be fool you
    Sheri Nakken, RN, MA

  8. CID says:

    This seems a little apples vs oranges. On the one hand you have vaccines, with a wealth of verifiable data and easily and often replicated experimental data. On the other hand you have the climate change debate, mostly based on theoretical data (eg tree rings) and modeling which, it has been pointed out, is based on more theories and conjecture and is slimmed down for faster processing.

    I greatly resent that it’s automatically assumes I’m an idiot because I’m not convinced on AGW. I can assure you, by any measure, I’m not. What’s wrong with weighing up the evidence before taking a position? It was easy to discount the ant-immunisation bunk with a huge body of evidence and very few credible dissenters. Not so AGW – there is a rising tide of credible dissension.

    For the record – I believe the climate is changing. It has always changed, and will always change. I think it’s supremely arrogant to suggest that ants like us are the cause and even more so to believe any political action we are able to spur will have any impact. I believe we don’t know with any degree of certainty how the climate even works. I know that with any movement such as this there are people waiting in the wings to make huge piles of money. I believe the ETS is one such opportunity, hence it’s push by the local Goldmann Sachs rep, Malcolm Turnbull.

    I also believe that, if real, this is not a political problem it’s a people problem. WE have to solve it, not governments. And it’s not hard to take steps – go off the grid with solar panels and you not only abate coal generation, you begin their decline in way no government would ever have the will or way to do.

    While I remain unconvinced of the church of AGW, I’m more than happy to take steps. Worst case, I’m right but we have a richer environment for it.

  9. Captain Col says:

    JamesH says:

    ‘CC says “I’ve changed from a believer to sceptic based on many good scientific arguments”. Name three, with links to peer reviewed publications supporting them, which have not since been refuted by further work.’

    Whatsamatta Jimmy? Can’t you work the internet? Just type ‘climate change’ into google and start reading the 57 million entries, sort the wheat from the chaff and you’ll find at least three yourself. Go for it. You might learn something.

  10. JamesH says:

    Capn Col:
    Oh, I thought when you said “good scientific arguments” you meant arguments actually backed by scientific research, as opposed to “random crap I found through google”.
    If you can’t specify your sources or what exactly led you to “change from believer to sceptic”, what good is your assertion that such “good scientific” arguments exist?

  11. Andrew F says:

    An interesting article with a similar theme, apparently written about the same time as this one, adds another factor: “follow the money”. See it here:
    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2690687/what_do_autism_and_global_climate_change.html

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