Vaccines and false balance

As anyone who reads Synapses would know, I’m a proponent of scientific skepticism. What that means is something along the lines of “the practice or project of studying paranormal and pseudoscientific claims through the lens of science and critical scholarship, and then sharing the results with the public (from Daniel Loxton’s 2013 essay, “Why is there a skeptical movement?).

Skepticism should not be conflated with hyperskepticism, as Caleb Lack and I argue in our book on critical thinking. So, it doesn’t (necessarily) mean believing in chemtrails, or Big Pharma deliberately poisoning you, or your cellphone making you infertile (it’s a bit of a pity that that one isn’t true, actually).

Yet, it does permit (actually, encourage) asking questions about received wisdom. The thing about asking questions, though, is that unless you stop doing so once good answers come in, you sound more like an annoying 3 year-old than a critical thinker.

Scientific consensus usually provides good answers, even though it can of course sometimes fail to do so. It’s not a failure of skepticism to trust the scientific consensus until good reasons for mistrusting it come to light.

In the absence of such reasons — or where those reasons stem from paranoia or poor research alone — you’re engaging in hyperskepticism and a denial of the science. Sometimes, this can be harmful to yourself as well as others.

Is it reasonable to doubt gravity, and think that maybe you’ll be the exception to the rule entailing that it’s generally a bad idea to jump off rooftops? We’d all likely agree that it’s not, and admittedly, there’s a really strong case for this agreement.

But how strong does the case need to be, and is the case for the efficacy and non-harmfulness of vaccines strong enough (even if not as strong)? Here’s a pithy answer:

Even if there are occasional harms resulting from any medical intervention, this is a case where those are rare and exceptional, and typically short-term in nature. The benefits, on the other hand, are undeniable — vaccines have saved millions of lives, and have brought diseases like smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, whooping cough, polio, and measles under control.

“False balance” is presenting two sides of a story as equally credible, when they are not in fact so. And it’s a common tactic of science deniers to claim either some conspiracy, or fear of debate, when you make the point that there is simply no scientific basis for their hypothesis.

Take the RFK Jnr and De Niro thing, linked above. They want a

peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that thimerosal is safe in the amounts contained in vaccines currently being administered to American children and pregnant women.

Many such studies are referenced by the FDA on their website (but then I guess of course the FDA would say that!), never mind the fact that in the USA, “vaccine manufacturers began phasing thimerosal out in 1999 and all childhood vaccines have been thimerosal-free since 2001”.

When we have the relevant facts, and no good reason to doubt the consensus, it becomes irresponsible (in that you’re supporting a mindset that leads to choices that cause sickness and death) to suggest that there’s a “debate” to be had, as that encourages (and is itself a weak version of) scientific denialism.

Here’s a perfect example of encouraging hyperskepticism, described by LCHF praise-singer Marika Sboros as “brilliant and brave”. (Sboros, remember, cites Mike “Health Ranger” Adams, who runs a site that “just asks questions” about Microsoft making eugenics vaccines and aliens controlling governments as one of her “favourite sources of health information”.)

What is the problem with “entrenching positions” in cases where one of the positions is overwhelmingly likely to be false, and results in corpses? We are not dealing with an “open question” here in the way an “open question” is commonly defined at all, as a matter not yet decided.

Yes, it’s true that polarisation is a problem, and it’s true that name-calling can be a problem, as I’ve often argued here. And it’s also true that the consensus can be wrong.

When something is only doubted by a fringe, with arguments and evidence so poor as to merited a takedown in Snopes, expressed by someone who once signed a petition challenging the HIV/Aids consensus, what’s really “unfit for medicine”?

“Just asking questions” — even though we already have perfectly good answers — thereby giving fearful people reasons to potentially not save their children’s lives, seems a more likely candidate to me.

But then, maybe someone is just paying me to say this…

Originally published at Synapses.




Jacques Rousseau lectures critical thinking & ethics (University of Cape Town), and co-authored “Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience” (Springer 2016).

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Jacques Rousseau lectures critical thinking & ethics (University of Cape Town), and co-authored “Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience” (Springer 2016).

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