Medical Ethicist: Anti-Vaxxers Are Like Climate Science Deniers

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If you feel a moral obligation to embrace science-based strategies to protect “unsuspecting infants” from serious dangers, should you be more concerned about those who oppose mandatory vaccinations for childhood diseases or those who oppose mandatory action against climate change?

That was a trick question: You should be exceedingly concerned about both, even though the dangers are very different in both timing and scale. Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Department of Population Health, explains in the Washington Post:

Thankfully, only a few physicians in America have embraced fear-mongering in the middle of this dangerous and costly measles epidemic. They deserve a place of honor next to climate-change skeptics, anti-fluoridation kooks and Holocaust deniers. They doubt the facts, ignore established evidence and concoct their own pet theories. They shouldn’t be allowed near patients, let alone TV cameras. But because their suggestions are so surprising and controversial, they often find themselves on cable news shows and in news reports about the “anti-vaxx” crowd. Their power, therefore, is radically disproportionate to their numbers.


Yet from MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Scarborough to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, many leading conservatives want you to think that it’s only that vaccine science that provides enough certainty to require government action. They are wrong. They ignore established evidence that the world’s leading scientists and governments have “high confidence” the world faces “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems” — devastating impacts that occur “even with adaptation” if we keep listening to the do-little or do-nothing crowd.

Last week, :

“There is not, at least in the science community, a debate about [vaccines causing autism] anymore,” MSNBC’s Scarborough said last week. “This is not even close, this is not even close — there is still a debate on climate change, the effects of climate change, how quickly climate change is coming on us. How much man contributes. There are a thousand different variables in that debate.”

Not quite. There is very little debate in the scientific community about the conclusion that humans are the primary contributor — by far — to recent warming. The world’s largest general scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, explained this in its blunt 2014 climate report, “What We Know”:

The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases. Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer. And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real. A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.

We have a similar obligation to protect people from the dangers posed by climate change that we do to protecting people from the dangers posed by second-hand smoke

Scarborough apparently has no idea that the best estimate of climate scientists is that humans are responsible for all of the warming we have suffered since 1950. As the most recent IPCC report summarizing the recent scientific literature observations explains, “The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.” That line was sufficiently uncontroversial it was signed off on by all the major governments in the world.

The main “debate” on climate change among scientists is just how catastrophic the “irreversible” warming we face will be if we keep doing little or nothing to sharply reverse emissions trends, which is to say, if we keep listening either to people like Scarborough (aka the cocksure ignorati) or to the professional deniers.

Amazingly, the foremost climate-science-denying editorial page in the country — which belongs to Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal — is shocked, shocked that leading Republican politicians like Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) have indicated doubt about vaccine science:

As for Mr. Paul, he will have to avoid these libertarian dormitory passions if he wants to be a credible candidate. Government doesn’t “force” parents to vaccinate children. The states impose penalties (such as barring attendance in public schools) on those who pose a risk to public health by refusing vaccinations against infectious diseases. This strikes us as a legitimate use of state “police powers” under the Constitution. It is also a reasonable and small sacrifice of liberty to prevent the potentially fatal infection of unsuspecting infants at Disneyland.

So it is a reasonable and small sacrifice of liberty to protect unsuspecting infants from serious harm by having the state impose penalties for those who don’t adhere to what science says is the optimal prevention strategy, in the case of vaccines. But for the Journal, it is wildly unreasonable and a major assault on liberty to protect unsuspecting infants — and billions of others — from serious harm by having the state impose penalties for those who don’t adhere to what science says is the optimal prevention strategy, in the case of climate change.

The Journal routinely spreads long-debunked disinformation, smears climate scientists and denigrates the entire climate science enterprise. A particularly inane a May 2013 op-ed actually urged “more atmospheric carbon dioxide”! Scientifically, that would be comparable to an op-ed urging “less vaccination.”

The Journal editors have a real contender in their pro-vaccine editorial for the most unintentionally hypocritical science piece of the year, especially with its final paragraph lecturing us on “human progress”:

“Let’s chalk up the weird science of Messrs. Paul and Christie to a lack of information, and we’re happy to send them 13 years of vaccine editorials if they want to study up,” the editorial concludes. “The not-so-great measles vaccine debate of 2015 is one of those events that makes us wonder if there is such a thing as human progress. But then we live in America, so we know there’s hope.”

Seriously, the Journal bemoaning whether “there is such a thing as human progress” is like Bernie Madoff bemoaning whether there is such a thing as business ethics or Chief Justice John Roberts bemoaning the overabundance of corporate money in politics….

Again, it’s OK to use state power to protect “unsuspecting infants” from unvaccinated kids because science says so — and the WSJ will send you 13 years of editorials on the subject. But if you want to use state power to protect unsuspecting infants — and everyone else — from catastrophic climate change because science says so, well, the WSJ can send you 13 years of anti-science climate denial opposing all action and trashing our leading scientists.

One final note: In his Washington Post piece, Caplan puts anti-vaccination doctors in the same category as “climate-change skeptics” and “Holocaust deniers.” I discussed my views on the term “deniers” in my December, post about the statement issued by four dozen leading scientists and science journalists/communicators urging the media to “Please stop using the word ‘skeptic’ to describe deniers” of climate science.