Anti-Vaxxers Get Carried Away Again

The state of California finally did something sensible and tightened up its vaccination rules for school children. I’d like to believe that reason carried the day, but I suspect having a measles outbreak associated with Disneyland provided a financial incentive that was at least as powerful as the science. And as expected, the antivaxxers went nuts before, during, and after the legislative process. Exhibit A is Jim Carrey’s twitter rant. The phrases he used included words like poison and fascism. And it is the rhetoric, as it pertains to the democratic process, that I would like to focus on. First, because that’s what interests me as a rhetoric instructor, and secondly, because I have already explored the vaccination issue in another essay, “The Natural Consequences of Unvaccinated Children.”

It’s not possible to analyze the rhetoric without at least mentioning the facts. First, the state did not say you have to vaccinate your child. Second, childhood vaccines no longer contain thimerosol. And last, thimerosol isn’t a poison even though it contains mercury. For non-chemists, let me explain. We invaded Iraq because Sadaam supposedly had mass quantities of chlorine gas, i.e., mustard gas that could be used to kill many people. Chlorine, like mercury, is a poison. But when chlorine is combined with another poison, sodium, it becomes sodium chloride, or table salt, which we need to stay alive. Yes, too much can cause heart disease, but that’s a question of quantity, not toxicity. Even too much water (another life-sustaining chemical) can kill you. Another example is that carbon monoxide will kill you while carbon dioxide (same elements) gives soda its fizz. Thimerosol has been repeatedly vetted as a safe vaccine preservative even though it was removed from children’s vaccines to reassure parents.

Requiring children to be vaccinated as a prerequisite to attending school is not the same as requiring them to be vaccinated. It is inconvenient for parents to not send their kids to regular schools, but the vaccination itself is not mandatory. Homeschooling and online education are available if parents want to refuse vaccination. It’s like having a driver’s license. It may be inconvenient to not have one, but the state does not require you to get one. People can live in places where public transportation is available if they do not want to be licensed. Another example is that you do not have to go through TSA screening unless you want the convenience of flying. Using cars, buses, or boats may be inconvenient, but they are options to TSA group gropes. Liberty does not mean that the state has to make your life convenient. Quite the opposite.

Facts aside, Mr. Carrey’s rhetoric is irritating for other reasons. First, he claims to be anti-poison, not anti-vaccination. This is a little like saying he’s not anti-meat, only anti-plastic packaging the meat is sold in. The poison argument is a red herring. Vaccines do not contain poison. Who would be in favor of poisoning children? And who would work for the CDC, health agency, or pharmaceutical company that did such a thing? Do antivaxxers truly believe that millions of lab and health workers throughout the world are willing to poison their own children just to draw a paycheck?

Carrey also uses another logical fallacy: the appeal to false authority. He uses Robert Kennedy and a video on the Internet to support his claims. Kennedy is not a scientist, doctor, or research specialist. His arguments about vaccines have been thoroughly shredded by Phil Plait of Slate Magazine as well as other experts. As for the video, it does not do what Carrey says it does. It is full of lies, distortions, and misinformation. All anyone needs to know about vaccine safety is that there are hundreds of thousands of graduate students and post doc students worldwide who live on rice, beans, and Ramen. Let me explain. These students have the time, expertise, and motivation to seek out scientific fraud. Such discoveries guarantee their career and get them out of the university cafeteria. Plate tectonics, dinosaur extinction, cold fusion, and Korean genetic fraud are just a few of the research areas in which hungry graduate students have contributed significantly to scientific knowledge either by overturning traditional scientific thinking or by uncovering fake research. If there is a “smoking gun” video about vaccine safety, I guarantee a med student or post doc would have uncovered it.

But it is the ad hominem attacks and anti-democracy implications of so many public statements like Carrey’s that trouble me the most. For years, and especially in the last few months, Nazis, fascists, Hitler, and Stalin get dragged into any disagreement someone has with government decisions or policies. I am tired of it. Worse, yet, it is extremely disrespectful to the 50 + million people who died because of fascism and communism in general and Hitler and Stalin in particular. It also denigrates the sacrifices that millions of Russian, American, British, and other allied soldiers made to rid the world of the Nazis. If Governor Brown were a real fascist, some men in trench coats would knock on Jim Carrey’s door and we’d never hear from him again.

We live in a democratic society. For all of its flaws, everyone has access to the political process, either through ballots or by offering opinions in the public square. Yes, the more money you have, the more access you have. But California has citizen initiatives. And Jim Carrey is not a poor fast food worker. He has the money and enough wealthy friends to circulate a petition to overturn the state’s new vaccination rules. All he has to do is gather enough signatures and then convince the voters that he is right and that doctors and health care professionals are wrong. That’s democracy in action. By design, our system is slow to act. It’s too bad that Jim Carrey et al. would rather resort to name calling and tantrums than engage in the hard work of democracy.

Lawyers have a saying: When the law is on your side, argue the law. When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, argue the loudest. I think we can figure out what kind of lawyer Jim Carrey would be. Oh, that’s right. He already played a lawyer in a movie: Liar Liar. How prophetic.