Why you should ignore what anti-vaxxers have to say

When a person is immune to evidence or keeps claiming that everyone else is hiding the truth, debating them is futile.

Have you ever heard that shape-shifting reptilians are in charge of the world? Or how about the idea that the US government staged the Moon landing? Of course there is no proof, because the authorities are covering it up and lying to you.

This line of reasoning is a simplified example of what goes through the head of a conspiracy theorist.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Western Australia, has described conspiracy theories as immune to evidence: “If you reject evidence, or reinterpret the evidence to be confirmation of your theory, or you ignore mountains of evidence to focus on just one thing, you’re probably a conspiracy theorist.”

It’s great to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism, be open-minded and think critically. But conspiratorial thinking crosses that line and wanders off into a paranoid world where nobody can be trusted.

The harmless flavour of a conspiracy theorist will try to convince you about lizard people at a pub. But there are others, who spread dangerous misinformation about important public health issues, such as vaccination.

Associate professor Guy Eslick, a researcher from the University of Sydney, has recently led a review of studies looking at the link between vaccines and autism. Over a million children were surveyed by the studies combined.

Once published, the conclusion swept across international headlines, putting it plain and simple — there is no evidence to support the claim that autism is caused by vaccines.

While this finding is hardly surprising, militant anti-vaccination campaigners have been claiming the link exists for decades. The cause of this misconception can be attributed to a fraudulent and since retracted study published in 1998 by a former British doctor Andrew Wakefield.

And yet, since this damaging publication, even in the light of comprehensive research showing the opposite, anti-vaxxers are still refusing to let the myth go. Furthermore, a similar attitude emerges when they face any other data contradicting their belief that vaccines are unsafe, unnecessary and do not work.

So why is it so hard to change an anti-vaxxer’s mind?

After all they claim to be presenting information in the interests of parents who want to make an informed choice about vaccines. You would think that evidence which shows vaccines to be causing less harm than preventing it would be welcomed by anyone concerned about the matter.

Unfortunately, an anti-vaxxer is really just a conspiracy theorist. Some of them even admit they would not change their mind in light of any evidence, or keep shifting the goalposts until the proof they demand is impossible to provide.

This is the crux of the issue: you can’t tackle a conspiracy theorist with facts or evidence, because their logic prevents them from taking into account anything that contradicts their worldview.

In fact, Lewandowski and his colleagues have outlined six criteria for conspiratorial thinking, and most of those apply to anti-vaxxers. Allow me to demonstrate with examples gleaned on anti-vaccination forums online.

The first criterion is nefarious intent — the belief that presumed conspirators have evil intentions. For anti-vaxxers this usually goes along the lines of Big Pharma “killing babies for money.” Similar narratives include careless doctors, incompetent health authorities, research fraud and other explanations for why nobody believes that vaccines are bad. In other words, every health official is in on it and the people who don’t see this are fools. Obviously.

Then there is the perception of oneself as a persecuted victim. Sure enough, anti-vaxxers are usually quick to complain about suppression of “the truth” they have discovered, particularly when health authorities issue warnings about misleading anti-vaccination campaigns.

The next criterion that fits the bill is nihilistic skepticism, the attitude anti-vaxxers show when they refuse to believe in anything that doesn’t fit their theory.

And lastly, self-sealing reasoning means that any evidence against the conspiracy is interpreted as evidence for it. This is exactly what anti-vaxxers do when they face a study like Eslick’s: they claim the data has been cherry-picked, the author has vested interests, the University of Sydney received new lab equipment for running this research, and so on and so forth.

You can’t debate a conspiracy theorist using evidence and reason. It’s absolutely crucial to realise this when faced with claims by anti-vaccination campaigners.

Anti-vaxxers are immune to evidence.

And you know what — it’s really disappointing. We need watchdogs for the medical industry as much as we need them everywhere else. Vaccines are not without risks, but they prevent diseases. And yes, pharmaceutical companies are known to engage in shoddy and sometimes unethical practices. Manufacturing mistakes happen, and people can be harmed by medications.

But it is crucial that the discussion of these issues is done in a rational environment that encourages real debate and bases arguments on solid evidence. Not with militant activists who refuse to accept anything that won’t fit their narrative.

Scientists make mistakes and correct them, but you can’t expect a conspiracy theorist to admit they are wrong.

Thank you for reading! If you believe this is an important message, please share this or hit “Recommend” below. Only by exposing the thinking of anti-vaxxers can we discredit them publicly and deter concerned parents from taking their corrupt worldview into account.