Can I Respect Someone Who Speaks Out Against Routine Vaccination?

Recently, a friend of mine brought to my attention a blog post written a few years ago by Suzanne Humphries.  In it, Suzanne makes a rather weak attempt at disgracing the conventional health practice of and the organizations that advocate for routine immunization.  There is not really much point in me responding to the post as this has been done quite well here and here.  I shared these links with my friend and in response, she asked me the following very thought-provoking question:

I am not surprised you don’t like [Suzanne Humphries]. Do you like or respect
anyone who speaks out against vaccines or are they all misguided, quacks, silly,
antiscience, etc etc?

I really appreciated her question and after much thought, penned the following response (with some further edits for this blog):

I can’t say that I dislike her since I don’t know her. “Like” to me is more personal and requires face-to-face time.  On the other hand, I think it is irresponsible and dangerous to spread misinformation and make silly baseless statements; I mean really, how can you take seriously someone who says “Vaccines are dangerous and should never be injected into anyone for any reason”. That sort of extreme hyperbole is very problematic on so many levels.

I should also say that I have a major problem with the whole “pro” vs. “anti” paradigm. This is not about belief, and it certainly should never be about ‘who’ to believe. Medicine is not a religion. Religion, not science, is the venue for belief, leaps of faith, and accepting because it is said.  In science, the only thing that speaks is the data … data collected from thoughtful, formal, legitimate observation (i.e. research). We should all have our say in terms of how to interpret and apply the data. But in public health and science in general, we must always go out of our way to base conclusions and recommendations on what the data, not people, are saying.  At the end of the day, we do ourselves a disservice when we frame these debates in the context of “who do you believe” rather than what the data is helping us to better understand.

At the moment, the arguments “against” vaccination that I have come across have been set in one of two paradigms: 1) a conspiracy theory where big pharma is protecting its financial interests at the expense of public health and/or 2) this construct of “pro” vs. “anti”, “us” vs. “them”, are you going to believe “our guys” or “their guys”.  These approaches stir emotions and  trigger significant political disturbance.  However, they are not scientifically or rationally compelling.

So, to answer the question of whether I like or respect people who speak out against vaccines: the answer is that it isn’t about the people.  This has nothing to do with who believes what. In fact, I would, without a doubt, respect the view/position of any anti-vaccination advocate/activist who makes a compelling argument.  I believe strongly in freedom of expression and would be eager to hear someone’s point of view, no matter how controversial.  In other words, I would respect what someone has to say if what is being said is interesting, relevant, rational, and relatively free from undermining conflicts of interest (or at least conflicts of interest are transparently disclosed). That said, anyone who wants to make an argument that vaccines are not in the public’s best interest would have a lot of work to do discrediting the many decades of (mainly good) scientific work that drive current worldwide vaccine recommendations. Conspiracy theories and “us” vs. “them” strategies do not get very far in that regard.

I guess ultimately I disrespect someone who expects me to believe what she says simply because… because others believe her, because she is a medical doctor, because she aced theoretical physics in undergrad, because SHE knows the truth. Those are not arguments worthy of respect.