There has been a lot of attention on vaccines in the last few months, particularly disgraced MD Andrew Wakefield’s recent attempt to show his anti-vaccination movie at the Tribeca film festival and subsequent public condemnation. This attention will increase as some families feel the pinch of the no-jab-no-pay laws. These are laws wherein welfare recipients are not eligible for specific pay supplements if their children are not vaccinated. It is interesting to see how some of the best intentions have been turned into pseudoscientific woo. Pseudoscientific woo is the deception, intentional or otherwise, in things like thorium-powered (nuclear) cars — it sounds reasonable, looks good, and is completely unsupported by evidence.
The earliest vaccines were developed in the 1800s to treat smallpox. In the 200 years since we have developed pre-emptive treatments for hepatitis, influenza, and more. This has had a massive effect on both the longevity and quality of life for the developed world. In the 1930s there were 21,000 cases of polio in America; in 1994 it was declared eradicated, the result of large-scale efforts from the government and private organisations. However with the ‘alternative’ movement swaying public opinion, the effects of vaccinations are being lost, with the world reporting new incidences of previously eradicated diseases.
Many people have started educating themselves through Google, but often fall prey to predators who abuse this thirst for information for their own benefit. It is with the best intentions that people can do more harm or perpetuate outdated myths, particularly online gurus. For example, the Monsanto and Roundup story: the social justice warrior crowd decry Roundup as a dangerous toxic poison ingested by everyone, controlled by Monsanto through lawsuits and thuggery. The fact is the herbicide glycophosphate (Roundup’s active ingredient) has been in the public domain for over a decade and there have been no lawsuits over Monsanto’s use — it is a generic product deemed safe by the FDA and WHO.
The problem is that misinformation is not always in the best interest of the reader and their loved ones. One high profile issue has been chlorine dioxide to treat autism. Chlorine dioxide is better known as industrial bleach and pseudoscientific woo has prescribed its use, either orally or through an enema, to treat autism, which leads to the caustic burning of the oral and colonic cavities. To most of us this is child abuse, but it is accepted within many alternative crowds due to misinformation and misunderstanding perpetuated by the pseudoscientific woo leadership.
Concern about vaccines has escalated, particularly since the Wakefield publication of 1998 linking vaccines and autism. This publication was later retracted when it was found that his data was fake — Dr Wakefield was discredited, disbarred, and prevented from practicing medicine, but the story continues to spread, reducing the public trust of vaccines and scientists. There are also several high profile health guidance celebrities who preach lifestyle and educational philosophies that do not always match the scientific evidence. Recent work has found a common set of underlying inheritable genes that cause the larger part of the autism spectrum, not vaccines (although you would be pressed to find evidence of this outside of academic and pro-vaccine groups). A meta-analysis of literature regarding large cohort evaluations of autistic and non-autistic twins has shown that vaccines may in fact reduce the prevalence of autism, but this is a rather obscure academic finding, not something you would stumble upon through Google.
The internet leadership of pseudoscientific groups is often a layperson, without the expertise, experience or knowledge for the field they write about. This leads to misrepresenting the content of research findings or incorrectly reporting the results, e.g. The Times incorrectly stated that smelling farts could prevent cancer, which was nothing like the true findings. At the same time a counter-movement of scientists and public health officials have begun to fight back; one example of this is the Gawker article by Yvette d’Entremont which addressed many of the inconsistencies of Vani Hari, The Food Babe.
No one is immune to concern for their loved ones, watching what they eat, drink and live around —this is why we stopped using lead paint. The effects of a healthy diet are well known, and some foods are better for you than others. However, health guidance gurus will tell you how eating or drinking a particular fruit or vegetable will help your body, in an effort to get your interest and your subscription. Some advice tries to focus on one particular aspect, such as the paleo diet, which is not always supported by scientific evidence; you can drink kale smoothies until you turn green, but it will not detox your body any more than it would if you were to drink a glass of water, and may in fact cause heavy metal poisoning. Kale does not detox your body, your liver and kidneys do, which perform at more or less the same level constantly if you are a healthy individual and do not eat kale or any other ‘health food’.
Often it is a misunderstanding of the facts, not malice, that causes these ideas to propagate in the community at large, feeding the concerns of parents, loved ones, and relatives. This is compounded by ‘cognitive bias’, where we accept things that we believe to be true or fear more readily than those we disagree with. As a result, when health guidance gurus, friends, or family agree with us, we pay more attention, but when they disagree we tend to avoid them or argue, which drives them away. We build a small network of like-minded people who agree with whatever point of view we hold and do so unconsciously. Services like Twitter and Facebook make this worse by suggesting groups and posts based on our history.
With the variety of opinions and sources on the internet we can find something that supports the anti-vaccination movement but ignores everything else. This makes fighting to inform the public hard for scientists, and stacks the odds in favour of someone getting bad information when they first begin looking. The woo peddled by the internet charlatans is denser and harder to sift through for grains of truth than you might think, and finding a balanced, well-informed, and cited source is harder again. This makes even the semi-truth and compelling arguments of pseudoscience more appealing; after all, they agree with you.
Words by Toby Advised