The anti-vaccine movement is full of all sorts of inaccurate claims, bizarre views, and distorted facts. This dissociation with reality often causes anti-vax arguments to conflict with one another. Therefore, in this post I am going to describe 10 anti-vax arguments or claims which are either hypocritical or conflict with other anti-vax claims (i.e., they fail to follow the law of non-contradiction). There are plenty of other self-contradictory claims that I could have chosen, but these 10 are ones that I frequently encounter.
Note: Before you accuse me of a straw man fallacy or reductio ad absurdum fallacy, realize that I deliberately worded the claims in a way that illustrates their absurdity. I did not, however, distort their meaning. They are all either claims that anti-vaccers make or positions which logically follow from the arguments against vaccines. Finally, just because you personally do not use the exact variation of the arguments that I am presenting does not mean that they are straw man fallacies. I have personally heard plenty of anti-vaccers use them.
1. Only parents know what is best for their children…unless you’re pro-vaccine, then you are a blind sheeple that poisons your children.
One of the most common anti-vaccine tropes is that “only parents know best.” The idea is that being a parent automatically gives you some form of magical knowledge about your child’s medical needs. This notion is clearly absurd. Parental instincts tell you that you shouldn’t let your kid climb into a van with that shady looking stranger, but they can’t inform complex medical decisions, only science can do that. More to the point, however, anti-vaccers completely deny pro-vaccers this luxury of child-induced knowledge. This is a serious contradiction. You see, if becoming a parent truly gives you superb medical knowledge, and if it is true that only parents know what is best for their children, then it logically follows that pro-vaccine parents should know what is best for their children, which means that vaccines should be best for their children, but anti-vaccers clearly think that vaccines are bad for children. You can’t have it both ways. You cannot insist that only parents know what is best for their children and simultaneously claim that the majority of parents are wrong about what is best for their children.
Now, inevitably someone is going to say that parents don’t get any “magical” knowledge, but they still know what is best for their children by virtue of the fact that they know their children better than anyone else does. Again though, knowing your child and understanding the complex science of how the immune system works are two totally different things. Further, this still doesn’t address the problem that pro-vaccine parents also know their children better than anyone else does, yet anti-vaccers think that they are wrong about what is best for their children.
2. Vaccines aren’t well tested, so I use totally untested alternative treatments instead.
I encounter this one a lot. A parent insists that there isn’t enough testing to support the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, then proceeds to tell me about all the herbs, oils, and other “natural” treatments that they use instead. First, the claim that vaccines haven’t been well tested is a downright lie. Vaccines have been more thoroughly tested than any other pharmaceutical in history, and there are literally thousands of papers on their safety and effectiveness. Second, and more germane, alternative medicines haven’t been well tested. As Tim Minchin eloquently put it, “by definition, alternative medicine has either not been proved to work, or been proved not to work. Do you know what they call ‘alternative medicine’ that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” This situation is utterly mind-boggling to me. Parents reject the most well tested medicine in history in favor of something with little or no testing all while claiming that they are unbiasedly looking at the evidence. My fundamental point here is simple: even if it was true that vaccines hadn’t been well tested (which it isn’t), then to be logically consistent, you must also avoid alternative medicines because they haven’t been well tested.
Now, you may be thinking, “but alternative medicine is natural, so it can’t be dangerous.” First, that’s an appeal to nature fallacy, and is not logically valid. Arsenic, cyanide, cesium, etc. are all natural, but that doesn’t mean that they are good for you. Second, that still doesn’t absolve you of the fact that your reasoning is logically inconsistent. At this point, I often encounter people who say, “but alternative treatments have been tested by hundreds of years of people using them.” First, that is an appeal to antiquity fallacy, and it is not logically valid. Second, there have been plenty of treatments that were used for hundreds of years before we realized that they didn’t work. Leeches are a good example of this (yes, I know leeches are still used in medicine today, but they are not used for the same things that they were used for historically. Now they are used for things like getting blood flowing to a re-attached appendage). Further, many of these ancient treatments were actually dangerous. Using leeches to drain a sick person’s blood, for example, actually makes them worse. Similarly, tobacco was used medicinally for centuries before we realized that it was carcinogenic. In other words, there is utterly no reason to assume that something is safe or effective just because it is “natural” or “ancient.”
Note: Originally, I include plutonium in the list of dangerous natural chemicals, but after several comments from readers, I decided to remove it. It technically is natural, but it is extremely uncommon. So the vast majority of plutonium is actually man-made.
3. The FDA and the scientific literature are untrustworthy, unless they are reporting the side-effects of vaccines. Then they are irrefutable.
Anyone who has ever debated anti-vaccers knows that they really don’t care about scientific results. They blindly reject any evidence which opposes their position and they consider the FDA, WHO, pharmaceutical companies, scientists, and doctors all to be untrustworthy. There is, however, one exception to this. Anytime that a side effect from vaccines is reported, it is latched onto as irrefutable evidence that vaccines are dangerous. This is extremely inconsistent. You cannot blindly reject everything that a group says except when they say something that you think supports your position. For example, anti-vaxxers routinely say that you cannot believe what “Big Pharma” tells you, but they consider the vaccine package inserts (which are written by Big Pharma) to be irrefutable evidence engraved in stone. That is the worst form of cherry-picking and is a clear sharpshooter fallacy. The logically consistent position is to admit that vaccines do have side effects, but all of the available evidence says that serious side effects are extremely rare, and the health benefits far outweigh the risks (Note: It’s also important to realize that the side effects on the vaccine inserts are all reported side effects, the vast majority of which have not been causally linked to the vaccines. You can read more about what the inserts really mean here).
4. We need more studies, but I’m going to ignore any actual studies that you produce.
As explained in #2, one of the rallying cries of the anti-vaccine movement is that there aren’t enough studies on the safety of vaccines. Again, this claim is utterly ridiculous and empirically false. More to the point, this claim is absurdly hypocritical because anti-vaccers don’t actually care about scientific studies. The claim that they don’t vaccinate because there aren’t enough studies is a blatant lie because there are thousands of safety studies. The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough studies, the problem is that anti-vaccers blindly reject the studies.
Consider the following: if tomorrow, a study is published that has a sample size of over 1.2 million children and finds no evidence for any association between autism spectrum disorders and either vaccines or vaccine components, would that convince anti-vaccers that vaccines don’t cause autism? No, it wouldn’t. I know this because the study I described came out in 2014 and anti-vaccers ignore it.What if a study came out which specifically looked for a link between vaccines and autism in children that were at a high risk of autism, would that convince anti-vaccers? No, it wouldn’t. I know this because that study actually came out earlier this year. What if a more general study came out that looked more broadly at the health conditions of vaccinated and unvaccinated children and found that the only difference was that vaccinated children had fewer vaccine-preventable diseases, would that make anti-vaccers change their minds? No, it wouldn’t, because a study that did exactly that was published in 2011, and anti-vaccers ignore it.
I could give countless other examples like this, but hopefully you see my point: despite all their claims of having “done their homework,” anti-vaccers clearly don’t care about the facts because they routinely ignore every study that disagrees with them. So it is downright dishonest to claim that you are an anti-vaccer because there isn’t enough evidence. There is plenty of evidence, you may be willfully ignorant of it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. (Note: Many of the safety studies were, in fact, conducted by independent scientists with no financial ties to pharmaceutical companies).
5. Vaccines are all about money. See it says so on this alternative health website, right here next to the link for their store.
This is a contradiction that I have previously elaborated on (briefly here and in more detail here) so I’ll be terse. The claim that vaccines are all about money is demonstrably false, but I want to focus on the contradiction. You see, the vast majority of popular anti-vaccine sites have stores where they sell you their books and natural alternatives to vaccines. Sites like Natural News and Mercola.com which write articles about how awful vaccines are and how much better the alternative remedies are just happen to sell either the exact remedy they are praising, or a book where you can learn more about it (but they aren’t in it for the money [sarcasm]). Do you see the problem here? The most vocal opponents of vaccines have a clear financial incentive for opposing vaccines. To be clear, I believe in examining the evidence for a view, not the people who hold the view, but my point is that the anti-vaccine argument is a paradox. It is logically inconsistent because the alternative medicine movement is a massive multi-billion dollar industry that profits tremendously from scaring people about vaccines.
6. Measles are good for you, but vaccine shedding is bad.
Recently, many anti-vaccers have begun insisting that diseases like measles are actually good for you (even though that claim is demonstrably absurd) because it gives you natural immunity, yet they simultaneously dread “vaccine shedding” and insist that it is one of the most insidious things about vaccines. Vaccine shedding is the notion that a vaccinated person can “shed” the virus and thus infect others. Without going into the details, it is possible to shed the virus in a small subset of vaccines, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the virus will be transmitted. For example, for many vaccines, the virus is shed through the feces, so unless you handle the vaccinated person’s poop, you’ll be fine. Also, the virus is altered for the vaccine, so you don’t get a full infection from it. So someone becoming infected from vaccine shedding is absurdly rare and is just not a serious concern, but for sake of argument, let’s say that it was. We still have another clear contradiction. Anti-vaccers claim that vaccine-preventable diseases are actually good for children, but simultaneously fear vaccine shedding (which would mean getting the disease). If the disease is good, and vaccine shedding gives you the disease, then vaccine shedding should also be good. That is rudimentary logic.
7. You have no right to make health decisions about my child, but I do have the right to make decisions that affect your child’s health.
Anti-vaxxers often like to present themselves as being victimized. They complain that they are being stripped of their parental rights, and they ardently insist that no one but them should have any say in health decisions about their child. The problem is that by not vaccinating, they are putting other people’s children at risk. So on the one hand, they think that decisions about a child’s health are solely the realm of the child’s parents, but on the other hand, they proceed to make decisions that affect the health of other children.
Inevitably, many anti-vaccers reading this are going to say, “well if vaccines actually work then you shouldn’t care whether or not I vaccinate.” If you just thought that, then congratulations, you don’t understand even the basics of how vaccines work. As I explained in more detail here, there are a number of reasons why your child’s vaccine status effects everyone else. First, many people are immunocompromised and cannot receive vaccines. Those people are protected by herd immunity, which is the second key point. Vaccines aren’t perfect. They do not work 100% of the time. They simply give your body a first line of defense that reduces the risk of getting an infection, but they cannot make you truly immune. As I frequently state, if someone with H1N1 sneezes in your face, you are probably going to get the flu even if you are vaccinated. So, the more infected people that you are around, the more likely you are to get sick, but, if lots of people are vaccinated, then the disease has trouble taking hold and you don’t get an outbreak (you can find more details and citations to sources that clearly show that herd immunity works here). As a result of herd immunity, disease rates plummeted following the introduction of vaccines, and today we enjoy low disease rates because of vaccines, but that situation will reverse if enough parents decide not to vaccinate (there are plenty of disease outbreaks that illustrate this). My point is simple, it is disingenuous and selfish to insist that others can’t make health decisions about your child while simultaneously making decisions that put others at risk. Vaccines are a community issue, not a private one.
8. I know that vaccines cause autism because I know someone who was vaccinated, then developed autism. The fact that most of the people that I know are vaccinated but did not develop autism is, however, totally irrelevant.
I often pontificate about the problems of using anecdotal evidence, but the “vaccines cause autism” argument is one of the best examples. Despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that vaccines don’t cause autism, I still frequently encounter people who insist that the studies must be wrong because they know someone who was vaccinated, then developed autism. Beyond the glaring post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (i.e., A preceded B, therefore A caused B), the people who use this argument are walking around with blinders on, because they are totally ignoring the fact that in the industrialized world, most people are vaccinated and most people don’t have autism. This is the problem with anecdotal evidence: every time that you say, “well Bob was vaccinated and developed autism,” I can say, “but Bill, Jane, Sarah, etc. were vaccinated and didn’t develop autism.” That is why the anti-vaccine position is inconsistent: it latches onto the anecdotes that support it, and it blindly rejects the anecdotes that refute it (i.e., its a Texas sharpshooter fallacy). This is why carefully controlled studies are so important: they reveal what is truly happening, rather than what our biased minds think is happening, and they consistently show that vaccines do not cause autism.
9. I don’t vaccinate because it’s a preventative measure and my children’s immune systems are exactly they way God/nature intended. I do, however, insist that they wash their hands, brush their teeth, wear sunscreen, dress warmly in winter, etc.
There are multiple forms of this argument (depending on your philosophical and religious predilections), but they generally follow one of two general paths. Either the person claims that their child’s immune system is the way that nature intended it and we cannot improve on nature (which is a blatant appeal to nature fallacy), or they claim that the immune system is exactly the way that God intended it and we cannot improve on God’s work (another variant of this simply insists that God will magically protect their children). The problem (or at least the problem that I am going to focus on) is that none of the people who make these claims actually live according to them. For example, washing your hands is really just a preventative measure that reduces the work load for your immune system. It is also totally unnatural and non-intuitive (the medical community scoffed at it when it was first proposed). So, by any reasonable definition, hand washing is an improvement over our natural immune system. If nature/God made the immune system so perfectly, then why do we need to help it out by washing our hands? Similarly, why do we have to wear sunscreen to protect us from the sun. Was God/nature so busy perfecting the immune system that there wasn’t time to perfect the skin? Further, if our bodies are so perfect, and we are so incapable of improving them, then why do anti-vaccine parents insist that their children brush their teeth? Brushing our teeth is nothing more than a preventative measure in which we improve on the body’s natural ability to protect our teeth. Hopefully you see my point here. If you actually think that we cannot improve on nature/God, or that we shouldn’t take preventative measures, then you should not brush your teeth, use sunscreen, wash your hands, etc. If you do any of those things, then you clearly do think that we can improve what nature/God gave us and your reasoning is inconsistent.
10. I’m not anti-vaccine, but I am anti-injecting children with TOXIC chemicals.
This statement is exceedingly disingenuous. First, to be completely pedantic about the semantics, if you are opposing vaccines for any reason, then you are, by definition, anti-vaccine. Nevertheless, I understand that the intent of this comment is that the person in question doesn’t oppose the concept of vaccines, but opposes their current reality. The problem is that the chemicals in vaccines are completely safe in the low doses that are present in the injections, and, in fact, they are necessary to keep the vaccine safe and avoid things like bacterial contamination. Anyone who has honestly and unbiasedly studied vaccines knows that, but the people claiming not to be anti-vaccine have succumbed to the anti-vaccine paranoia rather than actually doing their homework. Further, every time that I have encountered one of these “non anti-vaccine” people and presented them with the evidence that vaccines are safe, they have blindly rejected it. This tells me something very important. Namely, they are, in fact, opposed to the very concept of vaccines because they will not even consider the evidence that says that vaccines are safe (see #4). If you oppose vaccines, use the same faulty arguments that anti-vaccers use, and refuse to accept contrary evidence, then you are in fact anti-vaccine whether you like it or not.