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Shot down

The anti-vaccination crew are nuts, but also victims of intolerance

25 May 2013

9:00 AM

25 May 2013

9:00 AM

Anyone with two brain cells to rub together will agree that the Australian Vaccination Network is a mad movement. From its evidence-free claim that vaccines are toxic concoctions that can turn kids autistic to its citing of the work of lizard-fearing conspiracy theorist David Icke, everything about the AVN screams ‘NUTTER’. No wonder polite society and the medical establishment are so down on it, describing its anti-vaccine propaganda as misleading and dangerous.

But you know what is even more dangerous than the AVN? The campaign to squish it. This increasingly illiberal campaign, which will not be satisfied, it seems, until the AVN has been wiped from the face of Oz, might prove in the long term to be more detrimental to public health, and to political health, than the AVN could ever be. If its proponents aren’t careful, anti-AVN intolerance could end up shrinking freedom of thought and, ironically, intensifying suspicion of vaccines.

It’s now de rigueur in right-on circles to rage against barmy anti-vaxxers. In Britain, the name of Andrew Wakefield — the former doc whose laughable Lancet paper ignited the panic about the MMR vaccine causing autism — is now always said with a sneer. In Australia, being ostentatiously agitated by the AVN, and by the simple-minded folk who heed its hooey, is pretty much compulsory for anyone who wants to stay on certain dinner-party invitation lists.

Recently, however, the pro-vax lobby has crossed the line from ridiculing the hell out of anti-vaxxers – which it’s perfectly entitled to do – to demanding that they be silenced. It says anyone who spreads misinformation about vaccines should be deprived of ‘the oxygen of publicity’, in the words of a Times writer railing against Andrew Wakefield. When the UK Independent recently reported Wakefield’s thoughts on a big measles outbreak in Swansea in Wales (typically self-servingly, he said the outbreak proved he was right all along), there was outrage. Newspapers should not give space to ‘incredibly dangerous anti-vaccine nonsense’, commentators insisted. A writer for the Observer shook her head in horror and looked forward to the day when we are finally ‘rid of quacks’.

Australian pro-vax rationalists have gone even further in their attempts to stop the AVN. Indeed, the main anti-AVN campaign group is called Stop The AVN, which leaves no room for doubt as to what its aims are: really to create a brave new world totally ‘rid of quacks’.

To this end, extraordinary political pressure has been brought to bear on the AVN. In 2010, its right to appeal for donations from the public was revoked by the New South Wales Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing, partly on the grounds that the AVN’s activities are ‘not in the public interest’. This was an explicit attempt to economically emaciate this most hated of campaign groups. The Health Care Complaints Commission tried to force the AVN to publish on its website a message about where people should go for trusted info about vaccines: to a state healthcare provider. Anyone who cares about the freedoms of thought and speech should know that being forced to publish a government message is as authoritarian as being forbidden from publishing one’s own messages.

The NSW Office of Fair Trading has kickstarted a campaign to make the AVN change its ‘misleading’ name or risk being de-registered. This is naked political interference in the right of a campaign group to define itself as it sees fit. Where will it end? Maybe the Labor party should be forced to change its misleading name, too, since it no longer really represents the interests of the labouring classes.

The AVN’s freedoms to organise and speak, to fund itself and to spread its dumb beliefs, are being assaulted. These should be key freedoms in any civilised, democratic society, and they should be afforded as much to quacks as to sages, to conspiracy theorists as well as clever folk. Just as surely as Christians should have the right to say ‘Jesus Saves!’ (even though, technically speaking, he doesn’t), and just as vegans should have the right to claim that not eating meat will help ‘save the planet’ (even though that’s codswallop), so anti-vaxxers should be free to say vaccines are toxic and evil, even though they aren’t.

Ours is an era of gross intolerance towards quackery. Those aren’t my words; they’re the words of John Beddington, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government. Beddington recently called, openly and shamelessly and to cheers from the pro-science set, for zero tolerance of pseudoscience. Just as ‘we are grossly intolerant of racism’, he said, so we must also be ‘grossly intolerant of pseudoscience’. When a senior public figure can celebrate gross intolerance as a good thing, and be congratulated by rationalists for doing so, you know we live in deeply illiberal times. And it isn’t only anti-vax daftness we’re encouraged to be intolerant of. Everything from the serious pursuit of climate-change scepticism to the cranky practice of homeopathy is now treated as a terribly dangerous thing we might have to censor or kill.

This whipping up of intolerance, this marshalling of state agencies to harass groups that spew claptrap, stands in stark contrast to the attitude taken by the great 19th-century liberal John Stuart Mill. Mill’s era was also riddled with what he called ‘fake science’ designed for ‘attracting public attention’. Yet far from calling for gross intolerance of such idiocy, Mill wrote about the ‘evil of silencing the expression of opinion’. Even when an opinion is false or wicked, ‘stifling it would be an evil still’, he said. That’s because Mill had something that today’s sorry excuses for rationalists lack: faith in the ability of people to discern truth from falsehood, sense from stupidity. Today’s pseudo-rationalist demand for state punishment of quacks is fuelled fundamentally by a fear of what will befall the little people and their children if their putty-like minds are exposed to evil ideas.

The terrible irony of today’s gross intolerance of anti-vaxxer activism is that it could backfire badly. Some now want to make vaccination compulsory, or, as preferred by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, to compel parents to vaccinate their kids by making the right to attend school contingent upon it. Yet history shows that mandatory vaccination campaigns antagonise the public. As one British expert recently reminded us, compulsory vaxxing in 19th-century Britain ‘fostered substantial anti-vaccine sentiment and was counterproductive’. The best way to promote vaccination is to be positive, to engage with parents as rational, autonomous beings rather than treating them as dumb and gullible and threatening them with Serious Consequences if they refuse to play ball.

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