Vaccine... Help? Deprogramming? Something?

by Golden Delicious1 min read27th Dec 201927 comments


Personal Blog

I need help. Pretty much the entire scientific community and everyone I trust as an intellectual role model has said that vaccines are an almost entirely good thing, yet a close member of my family has made a somewhat convincing argument they are dangerous, and I’m terribly confused. I’ve been trying to figure this issue out for months now, and I just can’t. I’ve seen some (a lot of) dark side epistemology used by the more… out there antivaxers (i.e. homeopathy and essential oil people), but although I have a creeping sense some of what my family member is saying is bullshit, I’m still really confused overall, and some of the stuff they are saying seems reasonable, like family history screening.

They also say some stuff I’m pretty sure is total bullshit, like thimerosal levels in vaccines being a problem, or aluminum content.

I don’t think vaccines are linked to autism, and I don’t think the relative in question does either.

In addition, a very young nephew of mine (with a medium degree of confidence as to whether this story was overinflated by the family member) fell ill with severe seizures and almost died less than 24 hours after vaccination.

Can anyone help me sort out this problem?

I’m honestly confused and I think I might be being programmed by my relative.

Edit: Thanks to everyone here. I now realize that what my relative was saying (not my uncle lol) is total bullshit, not just mostly bullshit. They've been hit by a bad belief, and while I don't think I'll be able to talk them out of it, I'll ignore their rants about it in the future.

Thanks again,


27 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:10 PM
New Comment

You could start by writing the exact argument(s) by your relative. How can we respond to a claim we never heard? (Or did you just want very general pro-vaccination statements? I am sure google can help with this.)

My relative claims that aluminum and thimerosal content within vaccines can cause serious negative side effects (I think this is probably false)

They also claim that that vaccination schedule is to quick and seem to have some level of moral indignation at the speed and age of vaccination, and want a slower vaccination schedule at a higher age.

As well as family screening for vaccine related issues, i.e "If your family has a history of reactions they should wait until an older age and slow down the vaccination schedule. They REALLY don't like the number of vaccines given and consider it to be excessive.

They also believe its an affront to freedom in general to force vaccinations.

I think that's most of their arguments, I might edit in more if I can remember them.

This probably needs to be discussed for each vaccine separately. I am not an expert, but I can easily imagine a world where vaccine A contains harmful content, and vaccine B does not; or where vaccine C needs to be taken at very young age (e.g. because the disease is extra dangerous for the babies), but vaccine D does not. I can imagine some vaccines being harmful for people with specific genes.

Any of these claims about a specific vaccine can be right or wrong, and proving them right or wrong for a specific vaccine X does not tell us whether they are right or wrong for a different vaccine Y. So the claim of your relative about a specific vaccine can be correct, or can be complete bullshit, or anything in between (e.g. kinda true, but the risk in real life is negligible).

They also believe its an affront to freedom in general to force vaccinations.

This part is a value debate, not a factual debate. Vaccination is a form of trolley problem: we sacrifice the few people who get an adverse reaction to the vaccine, to save health and lives of the majority. Makes sense statistically; also makes you mad when it is your child thrown under the trolley. (The converse point is that when everyone else vaccinates their kids and you do not, you are free-riding on other people's sacrifice, and your ethical concerns seem to them like self-serving bullshit.)

So... which vaccine specifically are we talking about, and what specifically is the "history of reactions in a family"? (Because many babies have a minor reaction; they may be crying for a day or for a week. Are we talking about that, or about something more serious?)

Note: I am not an expert, so even if you give me these answers, I can't help you. But the data will probably be necessary for any expert who happens to join this debate.

I do agree that separate vaccines may have different safety concerns.

The ones my relative seems to dislike most are the DTAP, measles, and Flu vaccine. They seem to think these ones in particular are more dangerous/less effective (especially concerning effectiveness and the flu vaccine).

This part is a value debate, not a factual debate. Vaccination is a form of trolley problem: we sacrifice the few people who get an adverse reaction to the vaccine, to save health and lives of the majority. Makes sense statistically; also makes you mad when it is your child thrown under the trolley. (The converse point is that when everyone else vaccinates their kids and you do not, you are free-riding on other people's sacrifice, and your ethical concerns seem to them like self-serving bullshit.)

This is true. I think my relative is partially mad at the whole trolley problem thing, partially mad that individuals maybe "could be saved" provided family history was taken into account, but aren't because of a "corrupt medical system"

(Because many babies have a minor reaction; they may be crying for a day or for a week. Are we talking about that, or about something more serious?)

My nephew had seizures after I think the DTAP, but I'm not sure. I'm not sure if that is statistically relevant anyways. The family member in question seems to think that minor reactions might be indicative of future major reactions from different shots or booster shots for same disease.

What about the idea that claims without evidence can be dismissed without evidence?

Evidence for safety of vaccines? Billions of safe vaccinations in the past, widely accepted as safe, solid scientific basis, etc.

Evidence for your Uncle's claims?

Evidence for your Uncle's claims?

It was here: "My nephew had seizures after I think the DTAP, but I'm not sure." Yep, needs to be verified first.

Billions of safe vaccinations in the past, widely accepted as safe, solid scientific basis, etc.

Not an expert, but as far as I know, adverse reactions to vaccines are also a known thing. It's just when you do the trolley calculation, the total damage from the adverse reactions is much smaller than the counterfactual total damage from the disease if people were not vaccinated.

If the chance of adverse reaction is roughly the same for everyone, there is nothing you can do about it. But if it turns out that e.g. a minority of people with some specific gene has an unusually strong adverse reaction, it would make sense to make an exception for them.

Hopefully genetic widespread genetic tests will help with this.

That's a fair point. I don't know of any studies that showed vaccines are dangerous.

I'd recommend, for each argument, finding someone who makes that argument online, and posting it to skeptics stack exchange. I used to do that years ago and found people were very helpful in doing research and finding good sources on a wide variety of topics.

Most vaccines are made without (or can be made without) thimerosal. In addition, thimerosal is safe.

Vaccines sometimes kill people. Several serious diseases that killed many more people, we're told, are a much smaller risk now. At some point, you'd think people would want to selfishly avoid vaccinating so much. And that's what we see happening. There's a lot of rationalization going on.

Instead of reacting to individual comments, I'll try to summarize my thoughts here. Starting with disclosure: I have zero medical education, but I have two kids who are vaccinated, and my wife (a biochemist, used to search things in medical papers) did some research about it, and we talked about it; though there is a chance I may be misinterpreting what she told me.

For all practical purposes, if you are an average person, just get vaccinated. The research will cost you time and energy, and there is 99%+ chance your conclusion will be "get vaccinated" anyway. The rest of this comment is only useful if you are interested in truth and clear thinking per se.

First, remember the virtue of narrowness. More can be said about one specific vaccine, than about vaccines in general. For example, if you want to know whether vaccine X contains thimerosal, try finding the composition of the vaccine X (assuming optimistically that it is a publicly available knowledge) rather than talking about "thimerosal" or "vaccines" in general. Consider the possibility that there may be multiple diferent recipes for the vaccine X; in such case, find out which one is relevant for you.

Second, quantities matter. It's not just whether "aluminum is bad", but also how much aluminum are we talking about. To give an example from a different area, we probably agree that radiation is bad for health. But you get some dose of radiation by simply walking outside for an hour during a sunny day. So if something gives you radiation that is, say, 1% of the one hour walking outside, you can probably ignore it; although on paper it will look scary. (On the other hand, I don't consider comparison between "aluminum in food" with "aluminum injected in the body" completely fair. You'd have to find a coefficient how much of the aluminum in the food actually gets into the blood stream.)

Third, there is a difference between the ideal case, and the real case. If a study tells you the side effects of a vaccine, you should expect that in real life they are probably going to be greater. Unlike the scientists carefully performing the study, some bored person in the production will sometimes get the dosage wrong, cook the viruses for 5 minutes instead of 15, forget to turn on the fridge, administer an expired vaccine rather than throwing it out, etc. On the other hand, the same is true about any other medicine or food, so it probably does not make vaccines more dangerous than the other things.

Now we get to the utilitarian calculus. The vaccines have some negative side effects (to say the very least, they hurt). But the diseases also have some negative side effects, and if you crunch the numbers, it turns out that it is better to vaccinate everyone than to have a fraction of your unvaccinated population die, or something like that.

Okay, the virtue of narrowness again: is this true for all vaccines, or only about vaccination in general? Good luck; getting all the data will take you a lot of time! You must explore each disease separately. What is the chance your unvaccinated child would get sick? (Is this a counterfactual world where no one is vaccinated, or where only your child is free-riding on the herd immunity?) Some diseases are unlikely to get to you, if most people around you are vaccinated. Other diseases will likely get to you anyway. What are the consequences? What is the second best treatment for the unvaccinated person?

The tricky thing is that these numbers change all the time. The prevalence of diseases gradually decreases with increased hygiene and vaccination, then suddenly increases with a wave of immigration, possibly depends on weather, etc. The alternative treatments evolve. The vaccines evolve, too, to have fewer side effects. In other words, the result calculated ten years ago may be different today, in either direction. This is mostly relevant when the result calculated ten years ago was relatively close to zero.

Notice that there are differences between countries: a vaccination mandatory in country A may be optional in country B and virtually unused in country C. Find out why. Sometimes it is caused by different situation (e.g. climate, disease prevalence) in different countries. Sometimes just different high-status experts have different opinions for bad reasons. It is quite possible that citizens of countries A and B living next to border close to each other have more similar environments than citizens living on the opposite sides of the country A; although the former will have different sets of mandatory vaccines, and the latter will have the same.

One more annoying complication: vaccines are usually not administered individually, but in batches. If there are 30 vaccines (number totally made up), instead of 30 individual shots you will get e.g. 3 shots containing 10 vaccines each. So even if it turns out that of the 10 vaccines in the same shot, 9 are necessary but 1 is useless, it may be more practical to just accept the standard batch, instead of trying to get each of those 9 necessary vaccines separately. (Maybe they are no longer produced and sold separately.) Yeah, this sucks.

...and as I said, after you spend 1 year researching all this, you will likely get to conclusion that you should simply get the stardard set of vaccines, because most of them are useful, instead of expending money and time (and taking your child to doctor 9 times instead of once) just to get rid of the useless ones that do not make significant harm anyway.

I second the recommendation to ask specific questions at Stack Exchange. (I would vote against RationalWiki though, because that site is more about winning debates and making fun of political opponents, than about getting things completely right.)

I would agree with your assessment of rationalwiki.

And you're right, this isn't something I want to spend months on for little fruit. I will be updating my shots in the near future. (I've already had most up to maybe age 10)

Given the plenty of debate, out there right now, on this very subject — I don't think it very wise to start laying out claims here left and right. Especially those about your relative (who cares about those, right?) I recommend you a particular article, about how to deal which such stuff:

The Control Group Is Out Of Control

Bayesian statistics, alone among these first eight, ought to be able to help with this problem. After all, a good Bayesian should be able to say “Well, I got some impressive results, but my prior for [parapsychology] is very low, so this raises my belief in [parapsychology] slightly, but raises my belief that the experiments were confounded a lot.”

You don't have to become an anti-vaxxer just by hearing about some convincing evidence (which may be right or not) but instead become a bit more skeptic on the subject, that is, until you become better informed. That is, also, until you can better differentiate anecdotal and scientific evidence. If we cannot take this into consideration, and if things have to be either white or black, then, we are in for a very wild ride.

I have read this article. And my default position right now, if no one replied to this post, is that my relative is crazy and vaccines are ridiculously safe. Based mostly on what everyone here and across the internet and all the medical professionals who know more than me or my relative think.

What I'm looking for now is why everyone I trust intellectually believes what they do, what are the knockdown arguments against the antivax crowd?

Right. You are looking for why your uncle and his claims, such as:

My relative claims that aluminum and thimerosal content within vaccines can cause serious negative side effects...

are wrong, but here you're not going to find them, that is my point. What you are going to find is how to judge scientific consensus (and trust it) and if you read that article, then you understand. This is not even a trolley problem as Viliam has suggested, they do not happen in real life; we do not live in that inadequate world. There are inadequate parts in this world, but this is not one.

Do you know any sites I can find research papers? (or at least the names and authors, libgen is a thing after all)

Google scholar + Sci Hub should get you 95% of what you need.

Yeah… that is not what I mean at all. You want a site, what about this one or SSC? I hardly think that you need any research paper, or meta-analyses (although, you can most certainly find them.)

Instead, if what you need is to "beat" your uncle by telling him, “You see… I've got this paper right here, Golden et al. Which Indicates that the aluminum and thimerosal content within vaccines is not harmful at all...” Then you need another thing. And that is not the solution to your problem. If what you are, is involved in a domination game right here, right now in the middle of Christmas then the solution is to pass! And of course, to vaccinate your children, and persuade everyone to vaccinate their children (Or you know… give them a pass on the genetic pool? — I joke, of course.)

For next year your uncle will come and say, “The earth? Yeah, it's flat.” You will get wide-eyed, you will shrug and say, “No uncle, not again!” And then, you will get at the right solution.

Thankfully my relative isn't the flat earth type. That's a little *to* crazy for them.

Also why the hell do people think it's my uncle, I never gave any clues to the exact relation of the family member in question.

Sorry, I noticed that other people did that thing and it seemed sort of funny to me. But anyways, I hope I made my point somewhat clear and this post –and all the comments in it– overall helps you; I think it did.

Epistemic learned helplessness might be worth reading. SSC has a post for everything.

I think I might have to invoke this. I tried reading some research papers but I couldn't understand a lot of them, to much medial jargon.

The specific points your relative is making are very tired old anti-vaxxer arguments, not even interesting. I would guess that the confusion stems from this person being a true believer arguing with passion and convincing you. It is pretty simple, you don't need to win this argument with them. Trust the entire scientific community and your intellectual role models and move on. You are not going to win here. For each specific point you chase down the truth to, they will throw three more out when to talk to them again and if they can't think of any more, they will cycle back to points already covered. Or move on to talking about chemtrails. Of course if this issue interests you for its own sake, well

Thimerosal - Phased out of vaccines (except seasonal flu) around 2001, contained ethylmercury which is not a neurotoxins like methylmercury

Aluminum - Extremely common element present in almost all our food, the dosage in a vaccine is comparatively tiny.

How about a nice article from 2008 at science based medicine.

Is the vaccination schedule to quick? Hmm... science based medicine again.

Vaccine requirements to attend public school is an affront to freedom? The irrational choices of anti-vaxxers can kill babies to young to get vaccinated, kill the immune compromised, spread disease in the general population.

As far as the nephew story goes, I assume you understand the value of anecdotal evidence.

ok, thanks. This makes sense. Thanks for the help.

Cars are unsafe. They maim and kill a non-trivial number of people every single year. Is that sufficient reason to avoid cars?

Safety and utility are always a trade off. The problem when it comes to vaccines is that people are so coddled by a life without disease and death that they don't understand the utility they're gaining from vaccination. To them, nothing is happening (which isn't untrue, as vaccination is preventing the abnormal state that is disease) and thus vaccination feels correlated with other unrelated events (like autism diagnosis). Human minds are tuned to find meaning (arguably all minds are, if Skinner boxes are any indication) and will substitute bullshit and superstition if none is found.

If there is to be any remedy for your relative's position, I'd imagine it would be found in talking to people with direct experience of preventable diseases. Life without vaccination and antibiotics is within living memory and you need only go to a nursing home to get it. Direct experience of polio can be had in the general population. If you want to know what life was like when people just got sick and either just promptly died, or spent a lifetime with disability as a result, then just ask the people that saw it, or it happened to.

Nothing is perfectly safe, vaccines included. However, the alternatives to vaccines are well known and infinitely worse than anything that vaccines can do. Even if a few people die or get side effects that still a better deal than everyone having to have 5-6 children per family just to make up for increased infant mortality from epidemics.