Some commonalities of pro- and anti-vaccination rhetoric

Within the context of the contemporary vaccination debate, neither side has a monopoly on a particular kind of argument.

As just one example, many vaccination opponents focus on potential conflicts of interest by researchers, especially when researchers may be influenced by pharmaceutical companies and the potential profits such companies may enjoy through the use–especially the mandated use–of vaccines they manufacture.

These “[a]ccusations of having engaged in mercenary practices” are intended to reduce the authority of scientific experts. Many anti-vaccine Web sites, according to a 2002 study published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, take the accusation further, casting doctors and scientists as either “willing conspirators cashing in on the vaccine `fraud’ or pawns of a shadowy vaccine combine.”

Conflict-of-interest criticisms are also used by proponents of vaccination when they evaluate and review claims. For example, critics of vaccine opponent and scientist Andrew Wakefield, author of a now-retracted study published in The Lancet, accuse him of being “paid big bucks by trial lawyers” and of not revealing this “conflict of interest.”

Most proponents of vaccination see themselves, in the words of Dr. Paul Offit, as “science advocate[s],” not “vaccine advocate[s].” A major critique they make of vaccination opponents is that they ignore or distort science, equate correlation with causation, or fasten on preliminary or poorly-conducted studies as the final word on a subject.

Current opponents of vaccination also seek to align themselves on the side of science. Even as they criticize the mainstream scientific perspective on vaccination, nonetheless, “in what appears as a paradox, the appeal to scientific expertise” remains:

In the context of a controversy, any group which attempts to present its case and to participate in the critical assessment of alternative viewpoints without appealing to any scientific expertise puts itself in a very vulnerable position.

Despite this appeal to science, expertise in the vaccination debates remains a contested issue. Sharon Kaufman, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of California, San Francisco, says that with the proliferation of “experts” on the Internet, “many parents see even the most respected vaccine experts’ perspective on the issue as just one more opinion.”

Vaccination opponents often combine references to science with a powerful emotional hook. Citing the 2002 study mentioned earlier, Liza Gross writes, “The bulk of antivaccination Web sites present themselves as legitimate sources of scientific information, using pseudoscientific claims and emotional appeals.”

The National Vaccintion Information Center site, for example, combines a “Memorial to Vaccine Victims” with a “Doctor’s Corner” containing materials written by physicians.  Gross adds that, on many anti-vaccination Web sites, intuitive views about vaccines were elevated above “cold, analytical science,” and accounts of children “maimed or killed by vaccines” were common–a finding that may help explain why those who advocate immunization receive death threats.

This combination of science plus emotion–validating the intuition of parents while providing alternative expertise to back up their beliefs–is a compelling one.

Scientific knowledge–or, at least the appearance of such knowledge–remains key on anti-vaccination Web sites. This is visible in “informed choice” rhetoric, for example, and is a key theme of the NVIC site.  It is also, perhaps obviously, a key component of pro-vaccination rhetoric as well.

For more specific comparisons of pro- and anti-vaccination Web sites, see Markers of Trust: How Pro- and Anti-Vaccination Web Sites Make Their Case on SSRN.

Kristopher Nelson

I'm currently a graduate student of the history of law and technology at the University of California, San Diego. I also provide law and technology consulting services. Additionally, I'm a non-practicing lawyer and former developer/sysadmin at a biotech non-profit. For more about me and my work, see krisnelson.org or my Google Profile.

2 thoughts on “Some commonalities of pro- and anti-vaccination rhetoric

  1. I know you’re focusing on the debate itself, but I think you’re missing something here. Just because both sides use a particular argument or style doesn’t mean both sides are justified in doing so. Only to the extent that conflicts of interest provide motivation for specific vaccine results, it’s relevant to the vaccine debate.

    Anti-vaccine folk get fame (and money from books and such) in proportion to the bad things they say about vaccine. So there’s a lot of conflict of interest there. But I think there’s less truth to claims of conflicts of interests from the other perspective. There may be a few vaccines that have have money as a motivation (guardasil comes to mind–why was it required for immigrants?) but most aren’t making people that much money, as I understand it.

    So, even when both sides makes this same sort of argument, it’s really not parallel.

    1. Good points. My larger interest is in seeing how anti-vaccination arguments–despite criticizing scientific claims–nonetheless adopt similar, scientific-sounding language and arguments to try to establish credibility. So I’m not trying to equate the claims or their basis, but instead to look at how critical it is today to use certain kinds of rhetoric if you want to get people to trust you.

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