Climate and vaccine deniers are the same: beyond persuasion

Governments are worried. Vaccination rates are falling under the influence of a campaign of misinformation by a small minority of fanatics.

Scientifically there is no debate about immunisation, with every relevant health authority strongly endorsing vaccination. But anti-vaccination activists refuse to accept the evidence, claiming that “every issue has two sides”.

They believe vaccination is ineffective and unnecessary and that vaccines contain toxins and cause autism. They seize on the occasional dissenting study and exploit it for all it’s worth even after it has been discredited. They go hunting for instances of apparent adverse responses among children and advertise them as proof that jabs are dangerous and should be abandoned.

Anecdotes that seem to confirm their opinions trump mountains of carefully collected scientific evidence.

They spread theories about cover-ups, information-suppression and conspiracies among medical experts. They claim to be protecting our freedom and talk darkly about the government trying to take away our liberty. They portray themselves as David bravely fighting Goliath.

The anti-vaccinators attempt to hide their fanaticism behind a façade of respectability, adopting misleading names for their organisations and promoting the views of “experts” who look credible, but who cannot seem to convert their expertise into publications in peer-reviewed journals. While claiming to have better access to scientific truth, the anti-vaccinators show no respect for best scientific practice and dismiss the established experts as frauds.

These tactics are common knowledge. But every one of them is also used by climate science deniers. And yet the same kind of unhinged repudiation of an overwhelming body of scientific facts is treated not as the private obsession of a handful of nutcases, but as a legitimate part of the “debate” over global warming.

The media treat the anti-vaccinators with the disdain they deserve, but sections of the media see no contradiction in actively promoting the same type of anti-science fanaticism when it comes to climate.

The Australian recently supported attacks on “political correctness” in the school curriculum, giving voice to a teacher who argued that “there’s no Asian way of looking at physics”. Quite so; yet it routinely warns its readers about “left-wing” climate science.

Unhealthy advice

What would we think if Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared “immunization science is crap”? Or if he appointed Meryl Dorey, who runs the Australian Vaccination Network (which was recently ordered to change its misleading name), as chair of the National Preventive Health Agency’s Advisory Council?

Yet Mr Abbott has appointed climate denier Maurice Newman to be chair of his Business Advisory Council. In 2010, while chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Newman told journalists they should present both sides of the debate. Back then he felt the need to restrain himself. Now unleashed, Newman is in full flight mimicking the anti-vaccinators. Writing last month in The Australian (where else?) he declared that the evidence for human-induced climate change is a “scientific delusion”.

Newman professes to believe that the scientific establishment is engaged in “mass psychology” because it is “intent on exploiting the masses and extracting more money” (to what purpose he did not say). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the main global body that reports the scientific evidence on the issue – allegedly “resorts to dishonesty and deceit” and promotes “the religion behind the climate crusade”. Newman insists there are “credible” scientists who say the Earth is cooling rather than warming.

He says that governments that promote renewable energy are engaged in a “cover-up”, while state health departments are “hiding” evidence on the health dangers of wind farms. He declares that unless someone soon puts a stop to this “climate change madness” most of us will “descend to serfdom”.

Bizarre understanding

In a sane world this kind of fulmination would disqualify anyone from public office. But not today. The same ravings now issue from the mouths of many politicians who ought to know better.

One wonders how a man with Newman’s bizarre understanding of the state of the world can provide the government with sound advice about Australia’s business future, particularly when his claims about how climate policies have “decimated” our manufacturing industry have been rebuffed time and time again by systematic economic analysis.

If a private corporation appoints to its board someone with Newman’s views then that is of no public concern. But to have such a man in a senior public advisory role ought to worry every citizen.

I’m guessing that Newman supports immunisation and would not recognise in himself the kind of primitive thinking noted by The Lancet way back in 1927. In an article titled “The Psychology of Antivaccination” the prestigious medical journal commented on the passion of anti-vaccinators in terms that apply with eerie resonance to modern climate science denial.

It noted that the value and limitations of vaccination against smallpox had been thoroughly researched and understood by scientific medicine, and yet it went on to add:

“We still meet the belief … that vaccination is a gigantic fraud deliberately perpetuated for the sake of gain… The opposition to vaccination … still retains the ‘all or none’ quality of primitive behaviour and, like many emotional reactions, is supported by a wealth of argument which the person reacting honestly believes to be the logical foundation of his behaviour.”

The anti-immunisation brigade is still at it, yet giant strides have nevertheless been made in protecting public health. There is no such luxury in the case of climate change, and it is the anti-environmental paranoia of men like Abbott and Newman, and Andrew Bolt and George Pell, that endangers the health of our planet.


Published in The Conversation 28 January 2014


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