Radio Freethinker

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Battling the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Posted by Ethan Clow on March 20, 2013

It’s been a busy month for skeptical activists in Vancouver. I wanted to write about some of the recent news regarding an anti-vaccination conference that was held at the Simon Fraser University, here in Vancouver.

The anti-vaccination conference was organized by this group: the Vaccine Resistance Movement. When we learned of it, myself and the volunteers at the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver decided to put together an open letter to the president of SFU, Andrew Petter.

We then canvased for signatures from those within CFI but also medical and scientific experts at UBC and SFU who could add their credentials to the letter. We were impressed by how many were willing to sign it. Once the letter was complete, we sent it to the president, and published a press release regarding the conference and letter.

Additionally, the department of health sciences at SFU also issued a strongly worded letter regarding the anti-vaccination group speaking at SFU.

Once news of this started to spread, the story went viral (no pun intended) and I did a number of interviews with the press regarding this issue.

The story appeared in print in The Province newspaper “SFU urged to block anti-vaccine gathering

I was also on CBC Radio On The Coast to discuss the issue, as well as CBC News, which did a great job covering the story.

cbc interview

Additionally Global BC covered the story, as well I appeared on Sun Media, on the CKNW radio station, BCIT’s radio station, French CBC, and another CBC news story. In short, there was a lot of media interest for this story.

Given all this, I wanted to take some time to discuss some of the finer points of concern we had with SFU renting space to the anti-vaccine group, as well as some of the remarks concerning free speech and academic freedom.

We’ve discussed some of this at length. You can check out recent episodes of Radio Freethinker for more details, including a blog post Don wrote about free speech.

Our Concerns

The motivation behind everything we did was our concern that the anti-vaccination movement is dangerous. This is the reason we felt it inappropriate that SFU was renting space to them, this was why we felt it inappropriate to let this event happen without raising our concerns to local media, and this is why we felt it necessary to reach out to the scientific community.

I don’t think I need to convince many readers here of the dangers of the anti-vaccination movement. We are, after all, talking about a medical invention that has saved millions (if not billions) of lives and helped to eradicate dangerous infectious diseases and forms one of the foundational pillars of public health the world over.

Since SFU is a prestigious university with a reputation for science, education and higher learning, their approval of the anti-vaccine conference can lend tacit approval of their message. Essentially, giving space can be seen as SFU saying “these ideas have merit”.

It should come as no surprise that we at CFI took issue with that. There is the added danger that while a scientifically literate person would rightly chalk up the claims made by the anti-vax movement as ludicrous or conspiracy theories of the extreme level. But for a person with no prior scientific background to hear about a conference being held at SFU, they could naturally assume that SFU at least considers these ideas valid and when they see these ideas presented in a university setting, with supposed experts giving talks, it could very easily appear to have the markings of truth.

Vancouver recently had outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) and outbreaks of measles has occurred in the Fraser valley. Measles, whooping cough and other infectious diseases have seen outbreaks across North American and several have been located in Canada.

In order for herd immunity to be effective (the process by which a large number of people who are immunized protect those who can’t be) needs to be around 90% for whooping cough. However, in BC, those levels are between 60 – 70% making an outbreak potentially a catastrophic public health risk.

What about free speech?

The defence of free speech was almost immediately brought up by SFU once this story began to make the rounds. Disappointingly, it was also taken up by a number of skeptics as well. Before getting into this, we need to define what free speech is and why this particular case isn’t a free speech issue.

First, the point of free speech is to protect new ideas. The whole point is allow a “free market place” of ideas. By freeing ourselves from censorship, we allow new, potentially revolutionary ideas to be explored. Is the anti-vax movement a new, revolutionary idea?

Unpopular, unpleasant, or controversial claims are protected under free speech because these ideas could spur on new innovations, social change, or improvement. Is there potential for new innovations, social change or improvement brought about by the anti-vax movement?

Free speech is important because the airing of unpopular or controversial ideas is often difficult and can cause trouble for authorities. Therefore, criticism of the government, police, universities, scientists, sports teams etc are protected.

A science controversy vs free speech?

The anti-vax movement is a series of lies or what I call a “manufactured controversy.” Initially, under the guise of science, concerns about the safety of vaccines were brought to light. It turns out that the claims about vaccine safety were unfounded. Worse, the evidence for these claims was revealed to be fraudulent. There were conflict of interests that cast serious doubts into the motives of the people involved. In short, there were no grounds for a scientific controversy.

In the same sense there are no grounds for a scientific controversy over evolution, a flat earth or climate change.

However, through lies, fraudulent research and ethically dubious methods, a controversy was presented to the public built on foundations of misinformation.

Science, unlike other arenas of public discourse, is not a free democracy of ideas. Something is true or it isn’t. Gravity exists or it doesn’t. You evolved or you didn’t. Vaccines work or they don’t work.

Unlike other social issues where there is often two sides of a problem, science isn’t structured this way. There are not two sides to the theory of gravity for example.

The term “academic freedom” has been used in the past by creationists trying to teach creationism and/or remove the teaching of evolution in public classrooms. This tactic relies on the misunderstanding that science is like other issues where there are two sides and to not air all opinions amounts to censorship. Of course this view ignores the fact that its unethical to present incorrect information as though it were true.

Censorship

Censorship occurs when free speech is stifled or suppressed. For example, if the Harper government were to have me arrested for speaking about climate change, or revoke resources from scientists for speaking out about climate change.

However there are certain circumstances were we except censorship. The often used example is shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. And yes, that’s actually happened. In Canada, we also have hate speech laws that restrict what you can say (these laws are controversial obviously, but important to point out as they set legal precedent)

Most of us are willing to accept some limitations on free speech that directly contributes to public harm. If you think about it logically, some restrictions make sense, phoning up 911 for chit-chat, yelling fire in a crowded area, bullying, harassment etc.

However, the anti-vaccination moment, in my opinion, does not fall into the category of censorship of speech at all. And in fact, we weren’t calling on them to be “censored” anyway.

Keeping in mind what I wrote about scientific controversies vs manufactured controversies, we can see how the anti-vaccination movement is making claims. Specific, testable, claims about vaccines and public health. In much the same way that Health Canada of the FDA would prevent drug companies from lying about what their medications can cure, so to should the anti-vaccation movement be limited in the medical claims they can make.

No one would deny that its important cigarette companies are prevented from lying and saying smoking will make you healthy or that fast food companies are prevented from lying about the health benefits of burgers and fries.

If I started telling people that drinking paint would cure cancer, should I not be held responsible for my opinions? Should there not be consequences for lying to the public and endangering public health?

Of course, the “limitations” I’m suggesting are mitigated by the circumstances of such claims. If someone wishes to use snake oil medications, that’s their call. We don’t want to ban homoeopathy, only have honest descriptions of what the product is.

With the case of the anti-vaccination movement, using SFU as a venue is a similar situation. SFU is like the bottle the snake oil comes in. It provides the legitimacy and the veneer of scientific credibility. And this is why we were so disappointed and concerned. Had SFU reviewed the request for a room booking and decided (on the grounds I listed above, that this is presenting a manufactured medical controversy and is unethical) to turn down the group, we would have no issue.

Why Not Protest

Some people asked us why we weren’t protesting this event as we’ve done for other pseudoscience events like when Deepak Chopra came to Vancouver.

In our experience of doing this sort of “protest” we’ve learned a few things as to what factors can make them successful. And in this case, it doesn’t look like such a “protest” would work.

Choice of venue is really important for such an event. Since the venue is inside the university, we would immediately be shown out once we start annoying the attendees. We’d only be allowed on the sidewalk, which is far away from the entrance and people would just walk around us.

Given that they had extra security there, we expected they would be looking for trouble. Also, the anti-vaccination people can be a very hostile bunch and its likely loud aggressive arguments would break out. This actually happened to me the last time I was at an anti-vaccination event.

The other problem is confronting attendees with counter information will likely only entrench them deeper in their conspiracies. Generally speaking, the goal of such a protest would be to encourage critical thinking in fence sitters, people who haven’t made up their minds. Yet, the people likely to be attending this conference don’t fall into this demographic.

Any such protest needs to be carefully planned with a strict understanding of what the goals and objectives are. In this particular case, we really couldn’t guarantee any of our objectives would be met, and if anything, we might just hurt our cause in the process.

Conclusion

Overall I’m very happy with the way things turned out. There was some concern that we would be giving the anti-vaccination movement free publicity but after watching and listening to media that covered the event, I realize that they did an excellent job of showcasing the harm of the anti-vax community.

I think that shining a light on the dangers of pseudo science is a major objective for the skeptic community. If more people are made aware of the potential harm that anti-vaccination propaganda can do, they might be a little safer.

3 Responses to “Battling the Anti-Vaccination Movement”

  1. Stephen said

    I’ve already offered rebuttal to your points about SFU renting out space to the VRM in previous replies I’ve posted:

    – You’re assuming that SFU has a choice in the matter but this is false. SFU cannot deny renting out space to the VRM as per Section 8 of the Human Rights Code (of BC). If this is wrong please let me know and the reasons why.

    – By renting out space to the VRM, this does not mean that SFU is granting tacit approval to the VRM. It might seem like that to the public but that’s not SFU’s fault. Just because their reputation is in jeopardy is not a bona fide reason for SFU to deny the VRM rental space.

    Also in previous replies I’ve already pointed out the flaw in your analogy between VRM’s speech and drug companies labeling their packaging fraudulently. The VRM is not selling a product and the public square is not regulated so they can say what they want. Drug companies are selling a product and so their labeling, advertising and the claims they make are regulated and require verification by the government.

    Free Speech
    Ethan says, “First, the point of free speech is to protect new ideas. The whole point is allow a “free market place” of ideas. By freeing ourselves from censorship, we allow new, potentially revolutionary ideas to be explored. Is the anti-vax movement a new, revolutionary idea?”
    So you’ve defined the boundaries of free speech protection to “new revolutionary ideas.” Anti-vax speech is not a new revolutionary idea so it is not protected. How convenient – for you.

    Ethan says, “Unpopular, unpleasant, or controversial claims are protected under free speech because these ideas could spur on new innovations, social change, or improvement. Is there potential for new innovations, social change or improvement brought about by the anti-vax movement?”

    Now you say unpopular, unpleasant, or controversial claims are protected under free speech – anti-vax speech is unpopular, unpleasant, and controversial so it should be protected, right? Is there potential for new innovations, social change or improvement brought about by the anti-vax movement? I don’t know. How can we ever know if you censor them?

    The point of free speech is to allow individuals to speak freely in the public square. Any individual can say any thing. There are no qualifications for the individual or for the content of their speech. It’s there to protect the individual who is the source of the idea.

    I agree that free speech does protects new ideas. But it does this by protecting any and all ideas. And it protects them all equally whether they be good, bad, smart, stupid, vulgar, beautiful. The point of free speech is not to filter out, separate and protect some ideas while not others.

    The reason all ideas are protected is because you’ve narrowed the protection of free speech down using arbitrary deliniations which do not offer clear definitions. So only new revolutionary ideas are protected?

    Marxism is a revolutionary idea but it came out in the mid 19th century. So is it still considered revolutionary or is it too old? If it’s old, is it no longer protected under free speech?

    When the first anti-vax person spoke it was a new and revolutionary idea so his speech was protected at that point, right?. But now it’s not? At what date and time did the anti-vax idea stop being new and become old? When did it stop being revolutionary?

    Who gets to decide which ideas are still revolutionary or not? Who gets to decide when anti-vax speech no longer deserves protection? You? By what right?

    That’s why all ideas, and not just some, are protected.

    Ethan says, “Free speech is important because the airing of unpopular or controversial ideas is often difficult and can cause trouble for authorities. Therefore, criticism of the government, police, universities, scientists, sports teams etc are protected.”

    I agree. But why is your criticism of Simon Fraser University protected but the VRM’s criticism of scientists not? (You’ll say because the VRM is factually wrong. But you’re factually wrong too re: Section 8 of the Human Rights Code with respect to public accommodation.)

    If you want to censor the VRM then you also have to censor Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists (the religious group, not scientists who are Christian per se). Is that right?

    Science controversy vs free speech

    I agree there is no scientific controversy over vaccines in the scientific community. But what does that have to do with free speech in the public square? For protection for free speech it doesn’t matter if you’re factually wrong or not.

    Creationists can’t teach creationism in science class in public schools because the curriculum is regulated by the school board (ie the government) and the school board says you have to teach science, which creationism is not, in science class. But creationism could theoretically be taught in a class on religion, or a mythology class or maybe a literature class. And notice people are still allowed to preach creationism in the public square.

    If there is a science conference going on and the organizers don’t invite the VRM, that’s OK because the science conference is a private affair and doesn’t owe free speech rights to the VRM. Likewise, if the VRM wants to speak, scientists or anyone else don’t have jurisdiction over them in the public square. The VRM has full free speech protection there.

    Censorship

    Ethan says, “If I started telling people that drinking paint would cure cancer, should I not be held responsible for my opinions? Should there not be consequences for lying to the public and endangering public health?”

    Free speech protects your right to tell people that drinking paint would cure cancer (if drinking paint is a new and revolutionary idea [the part in brackets was tongue in cheek]). You are responsible for your opinions. Notice that it’s an opinion and not a command. Yes there should be consequences for lying but the problem is, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether someone is lying or really believes what they’re saying.

    Is the minister who’s a true Christian, who’s preaching to his flock, a liar? He’s not if he truly believes what he’s saying. And how can you tell if he’s a true Christian or not?

    [The following might be more directed at Don than at Ethan.]
    Ethan says, “Of course, the “limitations” I’m suggesting are mitigated by the circumstances of such claims. If someone wishes to use snake oil medications, that’s their call.”

    If it’s someone’s call on whether they actually wish to use snake oil or not, then you are saying that, if a snake oil salesman talks about snake oil, then it is possible that the listener might still not use the snake oil because the listener still gets to decide on whether to use it or not. So there is no direct causal link between a salesman speaking and someone using snake oil

    So then likewise, there is no direct causal link between an anti-vaxer speaking and the listener not vaccinating their children because the listener can break the link by deciding to vaccinate.

    Ethan says, “We don’t want to ban homoeopathy, only have honest descriptions of what the product is.”

    Notice that a private citizen (ie a non-employee of the homoepathy company) can go out in the public square and say homoepathy cures cancer and not get fined by Health Canada or arrested? This is the equivalent of the VRM going out in the public square. The public square is not and should not be regulated by Health Canada.

    Stephen

    • I think you miss two major point we tried to raise.

      First, you state “there is no direct causal link between an anti-vaxer speaking and the listener not vaccinating their children because the listener can break the link by deciding to vaccinate”
      The same could be said about racist or anti-LGBT, when they speak to a crowed that then goes out inspires others to commit violence or persecution.

      So, we are stated that some of what the anti-vaxer’s are saying is directly responsible (in the same way as hate-speech) for harm and deaths of hundreds of thousands.

      Secondly, we are not saying that EVERYTHING the anti-vac moment is saying is ‘criminal’. We brought up in the show some legitimate concerns that should be discussed. BUT the vast majority of their claims are imperially/factually wrong and are a public health danger.

      It is not that these ‘facts’ are controversial, it requires of the perpetrator of these lies the same malice of forethought as the person (honestly believed or not) to state that white people are superior to non-white…homosexuals are a plague.

      What the Vaccination Awareness Network spouts has crossed the line to be equivalent to hate-speech and we as a society believe that at that point rights to free-speech can be curtailed or suspended. Just because their victims are thiers (and others) children…just because the hate the spout is directed at vaccinations…the result if the same. Bigots are figuratively dangerous to the health of the community and THESE anti-Vaxers are a literal danger to the health of the community.

      I stated in the show and in my subsequent article that I do not take on censorship lightly. It is not sufficient that I do not agree with what they are saying or even what they are saying is “wrong”, I would not push for censorship on Creationist nor 9/11 Truthers.

      What I am asking should require a high bar to be met, and I think I have argued successfully that at least some (and the Vaccination Awareness Network in particular) have crossed the line.

      • Stephen said

        My objection is to your use of the word “causal” which is the foundation of your justification for censorship.

        Don says, “First, you state “there is no direct causal link between an anti-vaxer speaking and the listener not vaccinating their children because the listener can break the link by deciding to vaccinate”
        The same could be said about racist or anti-LGBT, when they speak to a crowed that then goes out inspires others to commit violence or persecution.”

        I totally, completely agree with you. There is no direct causal link between racist or anti-LGBT speech and people committing violence or persecution. Just because a person hears some hate speech, it does not cause him to go out and harm an LGBT person or visible minority.

        Don says, “So, we are stated that some of what the anti-vaxer’s are saying is directly responsible (in the same way as hate-speech) for harm and deaths of hundreds of thousands.”

        I notice above in describing what happens in hate speech that you used the word “inspires.” And then for anti-vaxers you used the word “responsible.” You did not use the word cause or any of its derivatives. It’s good to see you’re coming around.

        Don says, “Secondly, we are not saying that EVERYTHING the anti-vac moment is saying is ‘criminal’. We brought up in the show some legitimate concerns that should be discussed. BUT the vast majority of their claims are imperially/factually wrong and are a public health danger. “

        As a matter of practicality, if you say not everything they say is “criminal,” where are you going to draw the line? How are you going to determine what’s “criminal” and what’s not?

        If you’re only going to allow them to say things that you’ve defined as ‘non-criminal’ then you’ve quashed any form of dissent that they have which defeats the whole purpose of having free speech in the first place.

        With that criteria you outlined, you have to censor the teachings of Jehovah Witnesses and Christian Scientists as well. Are you calling for that too? If not, why not?

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