Although it’s questionable whether they’re based on “representative samples,” it’s interesting that several studies of the language used by “pro-vaccination” and “anti-vaccination” individuals read something like this:
“Another previous study using Facebook analysed comments in response to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post about taking his child to receive vaccines. Linguistic analysis suggested the language in anti-vaccination comments showed use of analytical thinking, low anxiety, mimicked valid scientific information, and appeared to provide scientific explanations for unscientifically backed perspectives. In contrast, pro-vaccination comments manifested high levels of anxiety and mentioned family and social processes.”1
Of course they have to say that the non-vaccinators only “mimicked” valid scientific information, and that we are upholding “unscientifically backed perspectives”; after all, they certainly can’t concede that anything “anti-vaccination” people say might be true! But they do consistently seem to find that the non-vaccinators are the ones displaying analytical thinking. Perhaps this is because the entire vaccine machine relies on logical fallacies over scientific evidence.
You’re likely to see a wide variety of logical fallacies in discussions of vaccines (ad hominem attacks being among the most common in personal conversations), but there are a few in particular that the industry relies on or comes back to repeatedly. Let’s take a look.
Logical Fallacy: Assuming Correlation=Causation
This one is first because it forms much of the foundation of the vaccine argument. The primary argument for mass vaccination programs is usually that we introduced vaccines and communicable illnesses declined, therefore, obviously vaccines work. When you see messaging that relies on images like this:
…then cum hoc ergo propter hoc or its sister fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc, is at work. These fallacies rely entirely on temporal association to “prove” their points — either that because two things happened together one must be the cause of the other, or that because one thing followed the other, the first must have caused the second.
Correlation is good grounds to raise questions. (“Does one of these things cause the other? How can we study it to find out?“) But it isn’t logically valid grounds to claim a causative relationship. Correlation alone does not prove causation.
Logical Fallacy: Appeal to Authority
“Trust me; I’m a doctor.”
“The CDC says…”
Arguments like these rely on the appeal to authority fallacy. No actual evidence is being offered; no logical argument is being made.
Claims like these may support an argument that’s backed by evidence. And claims similar to the second aren’t necessarily fallacious, depending on the nature of the statement. Is it evidence? (“The CDC [the party responsible for tracking death data] says that strokes cause 146,383 deaths per year.”2) Or is it an unsubstantiated conclusion? (See the part-to-whole fallacy below.)
Note that those appealed to may legitimately be authorities on the subject. When that’s the case, they should have no difficulty producing actual data to support their claims!
Logical Fallacy: Straw Man
A straw man argument is not an argument for a position. It is a means of avoiding engaging with an opponent’s position. This is the fallacy in play when, rather than providing evidence in favor of the safety or effectiveness of vaccines, a vaccine proponent mocks a position the non-vaccinator does not hold, or, in some cases, treats one part of an objection as if it were the entire objection (which combines a straw man with a part-to-whole fallacy). For instance:
“Vaccines don’t cause autism.” This is not a straw man if concerns about vaccinating are your total reason for not vaccinating. However, it becomes a straw man when it’s argued as though it were your full reasoning if/when it is not.
“You don’t love your kids.”
“Non-vaxxers believe their kids can’t get sick.” (or “…can’t get sick if they just take elderberry and vitamin C.”)
You get the idea.
A similar, and sometimes overlapping, fallacy is an appeal to ridicule.
“Reading mommy blogs is not research” (with the intent to imply that one’s opponent has gotten all of his or her information from mom blogs) is an example of an appeal to ridicule, as is the use of “conspiracy theorist” as a pejorative. These comments are not intended to contribute to the content of the argument (except in rare instances where the bit about reading mommy blogs is meant as a simple statement of fact); they’re intended to discredit the individual making the argument. (That makes this a form of ad hominem attack.)
Logical Fallacy: Equivocation
“The fallacy of equivocation occurs when a key term or phrase in an argument is used in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one portion of the argument and then another meaning in another portion of the argument.” 3
This logical fallacy is what the industry relies on when they tell us that “polio” has been eliminated. The equivocation here is with the term “polio.”
In the pre-vaccine era, polio was diagnosed based on a clinical set of symptoms. That is, any illness with a particular clinical profile was “polio.” Then a vaccine was created against one specific enterovirus, which we called “poliomyelitis,” we stopped calling anything “polio” that didn’t have evidence it derived from that specific virus, and voila! We’ve now magically “eliminated” polio.
And it truly was magic — at least of the sleight-of-hand variety. Illnesses meeting the original definition of polio still happen4 with regularity, with the more severe ones recurring in cycles. We now call them things like “acute flaccid myelitis” and “polio-like illness.”
Another misleading term is “eliminated.” Because the word “eliminated,” means in the common vernacular, “completely remove or get rid of,” people reasonably assume that when, for instance, measles is said to have been “eliminated in the U.S.,” that means that it has been completely removed or gotten rid of. People believe these illnesses have “vanished” or “disappeared” and, consequently, if we’re seeing them, they must have been brought back.
But there have been cases of measles every year for as long as we’ve been keeping records on it; it has never been gone. So what gives?
The CDC has a different definition.
When the CDC says that measles was “eliminated,” they mean there was a time without “continuous transmission,”5 or, put in plain language, it means there was at least one day in the year when no one was reporting measles.
This may not be intentional equivocation, but it contributes to misleading arguments. And if someone intentionally uses the term without defining it, in order to play on your emotions, it may also be a form of emotional language, such as an appeal to fear.
Logical Fallacy: Emotional Language
Appeals to fear seek to stir up fear around a given situation in order to manipulate people into choosing a “preferred” alternative.
There are a number of ways the vaccine industry does this, including the use of emotional language and of certain de-contextualized statistics.
For instance, when people are led to believe, by the use of the term “eliminated,” that measles was completely gone but “is coming back,” that creates fear.
“Outbreak” is another term that’s used in a misleading way to incite panic. An “outbreak” is defined as more people than are “expected” to get a given illness in a given location. So if the powers-that-be decide that no one is “expected” to get a given illness, an “outbreak” can consist of very few people. I saw an “outbreak of polio” reported in the news a few years back which, being translated, meant 2 kids were sick.
I’m sure this wasn’t pleasant for the 2 who were sick, but let’s face it — when most people hear “outbreak,” they’re thinking big and scary, with lots of people. Not “fewer kids are sick than live in my household.”
When everyone was being encouraged to panic over measles during the 2018-19 outbreak, the total number of reported measles cases in the U.S. (for all of 2018 and 2019) was 1,657, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, no one died.6
Compare that to the 8,000+ who died in motor vehicle crashes in the first three months of 2019 alone7, and it becomes apparent how disproportionate the fear messaging is.
Logical Fallacy: Lie
Of all the fallacies in this post, this one might be the hardest to swallow but, yes, sometimes an assertion is an outright lie. Most of the time, publicly-verifiable statements* made by industry insiders fall into the category of conclusions or assumptions treated as fact, rather than outright factual lies. On other occasions, it’s difficult to tell whether an individual is overtly lying, or if they misrepresent certain facts out of ignorance.
Perhaps the most common lie in the vaccine arena is that “vaccines have been proven to not cause autism.” This is a lie based on the part-to-whole fallacy, which we’ll look at more closely later.
*I say “publicly-verifiable,” because there may be other lies the public isn’t in a position to prove. For instance, whistleblowers allege that Merck lied about the efficacy of the mumps vaccine — but this is still in court a decade later8, so the public doesn’t have access to the relevant documents.
Logical Fallacy: Non Sequitur
The non sequitur fallacy is one that pops up frequently in research. The public expects that researchers are working based on sound science and logic; unfortunately, sound logic seems to be in short supply, as evidenced by statements like this non sequitur:
“Since AID [AutoImmune Diseases] occur in the absence of immunizations, it is unlikely that immunizations are a major cause of AID.”9
The problem in this logic becomes apparent when we put it into a more familiar context. “Since people fall down stairs in the absence of being pushed, being pushed is unlikely to be a major cause of falls down stairs.”
Whether or not the thing can happen without the proposed trigger has no bearing on whether the trigger can also cause it to happen. The mere fact that a thing can happen spontaneously does not have any bearing on whether or not another thing is likely to make it happen. But this is the kind of biased assumption “researchers” are starting from when they “investigate” potential vaccine injuries.
We cannot expect people to do sound science without unsound logic.
Logical Fallacy: Appeal to Ignorance
“Vaccines don’t cause autism.”
“Vaccines don’t cause autoimmune disease.”
“MTHFR has no connection to _______.”
These are the types of statements which, if you dig a little deeper — or if people are a little more honest/careful with their language — usually really mean “there are no studies which prove that…”
In broader terms, “there’s no proof that vaccines aren’t safe.” is a similar argument.
But studies aren’t what create relationships between two things. Studies merely reveal existing relationships. So having no proof that something is untrue doesn’t make it true. It might be true — but there might just be inadequate evidence available to prove that it’s false. (Inadequate evidence could be an absence of evidence, or it could be conflicting evidence or unreliable evidence, like from studies that are poorly-designed.)
Logical Fallacy: Part to Whole (Composition)
The part-to-whole fallacy, or composition fallacy, is routinely used when “vaccines” are treated as a single entity, even though individual vaccines have substantial differences. For instance, the Q&A below, from the CDC’s website:
Note that the original question was whether vaccines and autism are linked, but the bulk of the answer discusses the MMR and thimerosal — which doesn’t really answer the question. What about the DTaP? Aluminum? And so on…proving the MMR or thimerosal don’t cause autism does not prove that vaccines don’t cause autism. It proves merely that those vaccines don’t cause autism.
This practice of treating “vaccines” as a unit is ever-present, even when it isn’t being used as the heart of a fallacious claim. Every vaccine contains different ingredients, operates on different principles (e.g. some are live viruses, some are killed viruses, some are bacterial…), has different efficacy rates, is designed to combat illnesses with different risks, etc. Scientifically — and usually logically — they should be approached individually.
Several key concepts in the vaccine arena are routinely conflated: natural & vaccine-induced herd immunity, vaccination and immunization, and (virtually synonymous with the previous pairing) antibodies and immunity.
Natural herd immunity is created when an illness — let’s use measles as an example — is circulating in the general population. With measles in natural circulation, most people will contract measles in childhood, recover, and have long-standing immunity. This protects the adult population, who also receive “natural boosters” as their own children, grandchildren, nieces & nephews, neighbors, etc. experience the illness. Mothers pass their own naturally-acquired immunity to their infants via breastmilk, providing protection for the very youngest members of the population.
Vaccine-acquired “herd immunity” is an entirely different phenomenon. The youngest babies, too young for vaccinations or too young for their immune systems to respond effectively to vaccines, are unprotected. The effectiveness of the vaccines is dependent upon reaching a certain “critical mass” of people who have submitted to the shots, which is presumed to provide protection to the community. A small proportion are expected to be non-responders to the shots. The vaccine-induced immunity provided to the others wanes over an unknown period of time, necessitating recurrent booster shots, and creating a situation where we have no idea what percentage of the community is actually immune, and the oldest and youngest among us are likely to be at the highest risk.
Part of the breakdown in the vaccine-induced herd immunity theory is that vaccination is assumed to equal immunization (that is, if you’ve gotten the designated vaccines, we assume you’re immune) because the presence of antibodies is assumed to equal immunity. However, we know this is not accurate.101112
All of the above ideas may be valid to talk about, but when the ideas in each pair are treated as interchangeable or synonymous, the fallacy of conflation is at play.
Logical Fallacy: Suppressed Evidence
There are a lot of ways to suppress evidence, particularly in the fields of science and medicine.
- You can use an appeal to ridicule (see above) to discredit your detractors so the information they have to provide is treated as invalid.
- You can rely on technicalities to have research retracted.
- You can use the system of peer review to ensure that only “acceptable” research gets published in the first place.
- You can write up the results of studies in ways that reveal only partial information.
- You can, if you’re in certain positions, actually remove information from the record (e.g. if a business chooses to shred records).
- You can flood the media with the messaging you want heard, so that it overwhelms the opposition by sheer volume.
- You can practice censorship.
- You can simply appeal in conversations and publications to only those parts of the data that support your view, willfully ignoring the parts that don’t.
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which of these are, in fact, being widely used and just say that if and when they’re being used, they are examples of suppressed evidence, also known as cherry-picking.
For the sake of an example, though, let me point out a little-known fact about the history of the measles vaccine. Most people probably believe the measles vaccine was developed because measles was a deadly disease that Americans were terrified of. That’s what’s implied, if not outright stated. But, interestingly, that fear was part of the marketing that came after the vaccine — which was created because, to paraphrase, “we can.”
“At the beginning of the 1960s, it was clear that a vaccine against measles would soon be available. Although measles was (and remains) a killer disease in the developing world, in the United States and Western Europe this was no longer so. Many parents and many medical practitioners considered measles an inevitable stage of a child’s development. Debating the desirability of measles immunization, public health experts reasoned differently. In the United States, introduction of the vaccine fit well with Kennedy’s and Johnson’s administrations’ political commitments….
“By the early 1960s the epidemiology of measles was well understood. It was known that the disease occurred throughout the world, generally in regular periodic cycles. With the exception of some isolated population groups, almost all children contracted measles before they reached adolescence. No nonhuman sources of infection were known. By 1960, thanks to the use of antibiotics and improvements in living conditions, measles mortality was declining steadily in industrialized countries (although not in the developing world)….
“’To those who ask me “Why do you wish to eradicate measles?”‘ wrote Alexander Langmuir, chief epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1949 to 1970, I reply with the same answer that Hillary used when asked why he wished to climb Mt. Everest. He said “Because it is there.” To this may be added, “… and it can be done.”‘”13
Is that a bit of measles background you’ve heard? Not likely.
Other Logical Fallacies
There are certainly other logical fallacies you may see pop up in vaccine discussions. “No True Scotsman,” for instance, is a common one I didn’t tackle here.
Health care providers have an ethical obligation to promote informed consent. Government agencies have an ethical obligation to be honest with and accountable to the people. We need to insist on honest discussion of actual facts, rooted in valid logic, and not settle for logical fallacies masquerading as information.