There was no defining point in my life where I became a sceptic. More it was a gradual realisation that my preferred way of interacting with the world was questioning my observations and those of others, seeking out evidence to support or refute claims as they came my way. Eventually the wider sceptic movement began in earnest and I readily found myself identifying with them, reveling in the discussions that they brought forth. Thus the term sceptic became something of a positive term, one I could use to relate to like minded individuals. However those holding opinions that run contrary to the sceptical mindset have sought to take advantage of the good will the term brings with it.
The first to attempt to usurp the moniker for their own means were the climate change deniers, using the term to say that they were sceptical of the science at hand. Now that might have flown decades ago when our knowledge of the climate wasn’t as mature as it is today but the fact is that being a sceptic about this particular issue puts you against the vast majority of the scientific community. So in order for you to be a sceptic (and not just flat out wrong) you’d have to have some pretty substantial evidence that either runs contrary to the current scientific narrative or you simply believe the majority of the science community has it wrong. If you had the former then the wider scientific community would consider it in due process (as they have innumerable times before) and the latter is a faith argument, once which rapidly falls apart if you believe in anything else with a scientific base (like, I don’t know, computers maybe?).
The most recent judas to bring themselves into the “sceptic” community is the Australian Vaccination Network who, after numerous claims about their horrendously misleading name, have renamed themselves to the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics (sic) Network. The AVSN has long prided themselves on taking a reasonable approach to vaccinations, indeed even right now they have an article on their front page titled “Make an informed vaccination choice” (although it’s bereft of any actual information apart from the number of vaccinations kids will receive), so the title would seem fitting. However they have demonstrated time and time again that they are in fact not the scientific body they claim to be and do nothing to educate parents about vaccines and their effects on children.
I’ve had a go at them multiple times in the past for their absolutely unscientific stances on the effects of vaccines on children and their support of the conscientious objector exemption. Every time I make a post that mentions them I often receive multiple tirades about how wrong I was but without any evidence to back it up. I would then helpfully provide fully peer reviewed studies to substantiate my claims only to receive vitriol in return. Whilst I’m always hesitant to judge a following based on the actions of a few noisy individuals the problem is obviously not just limited to those few and anyone thinking they’re somehow promoting scientific thinking by denying a large body of evidence with nothing to back them up is causing far more harm than any benefit they claim.
So whilst this name change is hilarious it’s also symptomatic of a larger issue of people usurping the goodwill attached to the sceptic term. Far be it from me to be the final authority on what words mean what to everyone but I simply can’t stand people who pretend to ascribe to an ideal and do anything but. The now Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network is a prime example of this, touting themselves as an informative, scientific organisation that only has parents’ interests at heart. They do not and the sooner the organisation ceases to exist, or at least exert a discernable force on anyone’s decisions, the better.
I have to try hard to avoid the echo chamber I find myself in sometimes where the combination of my like minded friends, carefully tailored RSS feed and social media network can easily warp my view of the larger world. It’s for that reason specifically that I often find myself diving deep into opinions that disagree with my own, seeing if there’s any merit to the opposite side of the story. Sometimes this leads to amazing insights and there have been times when I’ve had to do a completely 180 on a long held stance because of it (climate change being the best example I can think of). One subject that hasn’t been changed by doing so is vaccinations, despite the torrent of “evidence” that anti-vaxers have heaped on my blog.
What really annoys me though is the pandering that the Australian government continually engages in with people who disagree with hard, scientific evidence. Initially this was due to the conscientious objector exemption for those who didn’t want to vaccinate and also didn’t want to lose their Family Tax benefit. Realistically it only punishes the stupid and lazy, not those who have deliberately decided not to vaccinate because of some belief that doesn’t hold up to casual scrutiny. Further reading suggests that this is exactly who the legislation was meant to target, those who are simply not responsible enough to get their children vaccinated unless they’re threatened with a loss of benefits. Whilst I’m sure that number is non-zero I still feel the legislation doesn’t go far enough as it doesn’t solve the underlying issue of anti-vaxers chipping away at herd immunity which puts everyone at risk.
Indeed when I first heard about the No Jab, No Play legislation that was coming in for NSW I thought we might be in for some real change as initially I didn’t hear of any exemptions past medical (which can be legitimate) and religion. However it seems like it will include the same dreaded exemption on “philosophical” grounds, essentially giving parents an out should they not want to vaccinate as long as they sit in a doctor’s office and ignore them for 30 minutes. This completely nullifies the point of the legislation as I’d hazard a guess that the rate of people who just plain forgot is far lower than those who are actively avoided vaccinations due to beliefs that can’t be backed up by anything more than a gut feeling.
Realistically I believe there should be no exemptions at all, regardless of your religious or philosophical point of view. The reason for this is simple: we have a responsibility to not endanger the health of others and refusing to vaccinate, for whatever reason, puts this at risk. There’s a very small percentage of people who can’t be vaccinated for sound medical reasons and they’re put at an ever increasing amount of danger by those who simply choose not to. This is not a matter of your beliefs only affecting yourself (something which I have no problem with) as your choices will have a direct impact on other people’s lives, no matter how hard you’ve convinced yourself otherwise.
It’s easy to miss the bigger picture when you’re in a modern, western country where virulent diseases that causes untold numbers of deaths have been a non issue for decades. If you look at other countries, ones where the vaccination rates aren’t as high as they are here, you can see a direct correlation between when the campaigns falter and the resurgence of the diseases they were trying to prevent. Additionally there’s also strong correlation with the increased numbers of vaccinations decreasing the rates of diseases like measles showing pretty clearly that they work exactly as intended. Suffice to say if the anti-vaxers had their way we’d be seeing diseases which are essentially non-existent making a resurgence, something which I don’t think many of them have considered as a consequence of their actions.
I know I’m mostly preaching to the choir here but hopefully these kinds of posts give you enough information to fight the torrent of bullshit that flows from the anti-vax crowd. It’s a hard war to fight, especially when the effort gap between saying something ludicrous and disproving it is so large, but the longer we keep at it the more chance we have of eradicating this particular brand of ignorance entirely. Indeed we can think of knowledge as a vaccination against stupidity, a disease that would lead you to trust strangers on the Internet over the scientists and doctors who worked so hard to save you from real diseases.
For a while I was lulled into thinking that Australia was becoming some kind of rational place thanks to all the progress we had been making. After years of campaigning, blogging and whining about it to friends we’re less than 6 months away from having a R18+ rating for games in Australia. The government also seemed to become more aware of people acting irrationally and decided to do something about it, removing the family tax benefit for parents who refused to vaccinate their kids. Sure we still had a long way to go but the beginnings of a rational, logical government seemed to be sprouting up everywhere and for a time I was happy.
All it took was one news article to bring that all down in one sweeping blow. I’ll let the exerpt speak for itself:
While parents have been warned they will lose their payment and the childcare benefit if they do not fully immunise their children, they are also being told exemptions will be given to objectors.
All they have to do to still receive the money is fill out a form supplied by the Federal Government.
It reads: “To meet the immunisation requirements, children will need to be fully immunised, be on a recognised immunisation catch-up schedule, or have an approved exemption.”
You can imagine how furious this made me.
So last November when I blogged about the Australian government taking away tax benefits for people who refused to vaccinate their children I thought it was a no holds barred approach: if you refuse to vaccinate you lose the money, simple. Turns out that’s not entirely the case as whilst if you do refuse to vaccinate you will lose the benefit that will only happen should you fail to fill out he conscientious objection form available from DHS. If you fill out that form then you’re right as rain and you’ll get the full tax benefits as if you had fully immunized your child even though you haven’t.
To me that seems more like a punishment for the ignorant and unaware, not people who don’t want to vaccinate their children.
Indeed it makes the whole policy null and void as the anti-vaxers are a vocal movement, with posts like these reaching a wide audience. Realistically if the government was serious about this legislation there wouldn’t be any exemptions at all and the anti-vaxers would have to endure both the physical and fiscal consequences of their actions. Instead now all we have is anti-vaxers wasting the time of doctors in order to get them to sign a form so they can then reclaim the money that they shouldn’t be entitled to and that makes me incredibly furious.
You see whilst the Australian Vaccination Network might like to think that there’s two sides to the vaccination debate they are in fact clearly wrong. The old pretence of vaccinations causing autism is patently false and anyone pointing to data saying that there have been more cases of autism since their introduction forgets the fact that diagnosing austim spectrum disorders has been an area of scientific investigation ever since it was introduced. Any increase in the condition’s prevalence is far more likely due to the umbrella of ASDs spreading than vaccinations or some other mysterious environmental factor.
Worse still are the proponents who think vaccinations aren’t the best way to develop a healthy immune system and that it can be had through a healthy diet or some other rubbish. Vaccines work because they give your immune system the tools with which to destroy the disease before it can take hold and the only other way to get a similar level of immunity is to catch the disease. For some vaccinated diseases this might not be too bad (chicken pox has only recently had a vaccine developed as the symptoms are very mild for children, however they can be deadly for adults) but for things like small pox, polio and other nasty diseases vaccination is the only safe way to get immunity. There are other diseases for which no immunity develops after you’ve caught it (pertussis or whooping cough) which means you could very well catch the same disease repeated times without strengthening the immune system at all.
I will wholeheartedly defend the parent’s rights to do as they will with their own bodies but the second they start to make decisions about their child’s (and indirectly all other children that interact with them) health then I believe the government has every right to step in and intervene. The fact of the matter is that refusal to vaccinate your child isn’t a decision that affects your child it puts every other child near them at risk. Herd immunity only goes so far and we’ve seen far too many tragic incidents where parents of children who can’t be vaccinated yet (because they’re too young) die because another child would could have been vaccinated wasn’t and then transmitted a fatal infection to them. Not vaccinating your children is a completely selfish decision and I believe the government has every right to punish you for it.
How you can claim to have a concious and object to protecting your child with scientifically proven and tested methods is beyond my comprehension. There is no scientific argument that the anti-vaxer movement can bring forward that supports their view, it’s all based on the emotion of those who believe vaccines are responsible for something that they’re not. I can understand their frustration, I used to work with special needs children and it can be truly heart wrenching at times, and the need to look for a source of blame is incredibly strong. However I can’t condone them blaming vaccines for anything but making their child cry when they get the injection as there’s no evidence to support it and abstaining from them puts their child and all other children around them in serious danger.
Seriously Australia, don’t support this kind of bullshit. It’s our kids who will pay the price.