The anti-vaccine movement presents a beautiful case-study in inconsistent reasoning and logical contradictions. One of the most entertaining and important of these contradictions comes from their treatment of vaccine package inserts. If you have ever spent any time debating anti-vaccers, then you have, no doubt, encountered these inserts. They list adverse events that were reported during vaccine testing, and anti-vaccers are adamant that these inserts provide clear evidence that vaccines are, in fact, dangerous. As I will explain, however, this argument is inconsistent with other core anti-vaccine arguments, and the presence of adverse events in the package inserts actually provides strong evidence against the vast global conspiracy that anti-vaccers envision (and, indeed, that their position requires).
First, it is important to clarify exactly what the adverse events on vaccine package inserts actually are, because anti-vaccers constantly get this wrong. They are not side effects that have been confirmed to be caused by vaccines. Rather, they simply include any adverse event that was reported during vaccine testing, regardless of whether or not the vaccine was the cause. For example, if, during testing, a child developed a fever from something completely unrelated to the vaccine, fever would still get listed as an adverse event (remember, saying “A happened before B, therefore A caused B” is a logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc). In other words, the package inserts contain a lengthy list of anecdotes, and anecdotes are not evidence of causation. If you actually take a careful look at the lists, you should be able to convince yourself of this pretty easily. For one thing, many of the items on these lists (such as autism) have been carefully studied and repeatedly shown to have no causal relationship with vaccines. Further, the lists contain things like teething, and I doubt that even the most ardent anti-vaccer is willing to blame vaccines for teething (thus we get our first logical contradiction, because they are cherry-picking which adverse events to blame vaccines for). Finally, the package inserts themselves clearly state that the items on these lists have not been shown to be caused by vaccines. So, once again, anti-vaccers are being logical inconsistent because they are only believing the part of the package insert that agrees with their preconceptions. Just to prove that I’m not making this up, here is a quote from the Tripedia DTaP vaccine insert (an insert that anti-vaccers frequently cite; my emphasis).
“Events were included in this list because of the seriousness or frequency of reporting. Because these events are reported voluntarily from a population of uncertain size, it is not always possible to reliably estimate their frequencies or to establish a causal relationship to components of Tripedia vaccine.”
There is, however, a more serious contradiction, and it is the one that I want to focus on. Anti-vaccers insist that “big pharma” knows that vaccines are dangerous and are just covering it up for the sake of money. For that claim to actually work, however, you also need governmental regulatory agencies and pretty much all of the world’s scientists to be willing to cover up evidence of the dangers of vaccines as well. Thus, anti-vaccers are forced to concoct a vast conspiracy in which pharmaceutical companies lie constantly and have bought off the FDA, CDC, independent scientists, etc. Now, if all of that is true, then riddle me this, Batman, why would those lying companies publish a list of adverse events that has to be approved by the corrupt FDA?
Really think about this for a second. In the same breath, anti-vaccers will tell you that Big Pharma is lying to cover up the truth about vaccines and publishing a list that proves that vaccines are dangerous. Those two views are incompatible. If these companies are actually willing to buy off major government organizations and most of the world’s scientists, then why on earth would they undo all of that by publishing a list of harmful things that vaccines cause? (note: even though these lists don’t actually show causation, they are still clearly not in the pharmaceutical companies’ best interests, more on that in a minute)
You might try to worm your way out of this by arguing that Big Pharma doesn’t want to publish these lists, but the FDA forces them to. If that is your response, however, then you are correct that this is what is happening, but you are wrong that it helps your position. You see, if you argue that the FDA is forcing Big Pharma to do this, they you have just undercut the notion that Big Pharma bought off the FDA, and that is a huge problem for you. The FDA demands evidence that things are safe before it will approve them, so the only way that Big Pharma is going to be able to push “TOXIC” vaccines is if they have bought off the FDA, but if they bought off the FDA, then how is the FDA forcing them to publish these lists? Do you think that the FDA is ok with poisoning children just so long as the company prints a list of adverse events on the package insert? That makes no sense.
A second approach would be to claim that companies are only publishing those lists to avoid lawsuits, but there are two problems with this argument. First, these lists are not standard warning lists, so it’s not actually clear to me that they would do much in a legal setting. Second, and more importantly, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) was set up precisely so that people could seek compensation for “vaccine injuries” while protecting companies from expensive lawsuits. In other words, companies are already protected from lawsuits by the VICP, so they don’t need a list to do that (note: the VICP is essentially a no fault system that does not require evidence that the vaccine actually caused the injury, so it also doesn’t constitute evidence that vaccines are dangerous; details here).
Finally, you could try to get out of this mess with a shred of dignity by admitting that the lists don’t actually provide evidence that vaccines are dangerous. Although that is certainly the position that you should take, it actually doesn’t help you all that much, because a clear logical contradiction still remains. People respond incorrectly to labels all the time, and companies know this (that is why totally worthless labels like “organic” and “natural” are so common). Thus, even though these lists aren’t actually evidence against vaccines, people will (and clearly do) still view them that way, and pharmaceutical companies aren’t stupid. They know that people will miss-interpret those lists. Thus, publishing those lists is still bad for Big Pharma’s bottom line, which once brings us back to the question of why the companies publish them? I’m actually going to agree with anti-vaccers here, and agree that pharmaceutical companies would be more than happy to cover up anything that might hint that their products are dangerous. I’m under no delusions that pharmaceutical companies are benevolent entities setting out to bring about world peace and eternal youth. They are after money, plain and simple. Their greed is, however, kept in check by regulatory agencies like the FDA. In other words, we have once again arrived at the conclusion that companies publish these lists because the FDA requires them to do so. This is really important because, as I explained above, this is completely inconsistent with the notion that the FDA has been bought off by big companies, and if the FDA hasn’t been bought off by big companies, then you have no reason to think they aren’t actually doing their job and regulating pharmaceutical products.
To summarize all of this, the anti-vaccine movement relies on the notion that companies have bought off regulatory agencies like the FDA, because without that conspiracy, there is no explanation for the fact that agencies like the FDA approve vaccines. However, the FDA forces pharmaceutical companies to publish adverse events in the package inserts, even though doing so is bad for the companies. Herein lies the contradiction. If the FDA has been bought off, then how is it capable for forcing companies to publish these lists? These two things are incompatible with each other, and the fact that the FDA can force companies to publish these lists is clear evidence that the FDA controls the companies, not the other way around. Without a corrupt FDA, however, anti-vaccers’ conspiracy theory comes crashing down.