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On Anti-vaccine and the Internet

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A lot of controversy has been raised about vaccinating or not children. The main advocates of the anti-vaccination campaign are, what I call, the sprouts of the internet. They are celebrities, right-wing pundits, people “that have brains” and are able to do research on the topic while browsing the internet.

I’m not linking this post to any of the sources for the anti-vaccination gang. I’ve seen horrible and sad things. An Australian woman said she researched 20 years about vaccines, and she is not a MD or a PhD on anything, and still she has more followers than the national vaccine coordination of Australia. Jenny McCarthy has a brain, but not a very developed one, and my wife and I would never follow the advice of a Playboy bunny, terrible actress and worse TV personality on how to take care of our children (no, we don’t have children now, but we will). So basically these people have the power of bringing together a dark cloud against reason, science and community well-being. And how they do that? Ah, the internet.

My father usually says that the internet is the worst invention of humanity. The distances were erased, information runs freely (most of it) and nutjobs have credibility. Unimportant things, like dijon mustard on an hamburger, become important in minutes. The head ache afflicting a saudi prince brings the oil price up. In the past, the not so distant one when I was a kid, it took ages (compared to today) for the information to cross the globe. It took ages for North American fads to get to Brazil, not to mention TV shows. I still don’t know how Twin Peaks ended. Today, a nutjob creates a website with fake or dubious information, post the link to some social website and in a matter of hours he or she has thousands of followers, in New Zealand and Gabon. The power of the viral spreading of news.

This nutjob-power is very similar to what Jon Stewart asked George Stephanopoulos a couple of days ago on The Daily Show: when Bush was a president, do the aides planted news in respected outlets allowing the government to say “see, NY Times is reporting it, so it must be true”? When you confront an anti-vaccine nutjob, he will point “hundreds of researches” on the topic and these so-called researches will be listed in one website, with a nice layout and a bunch of real and fake “researches” backing up their claims. It’s easy and cheap to create a website today that will serve as the main information source for all your fake allegations and theories. And the more “credibility” you gain in the right (right for this kind of lunacy) circles, the easier to increase the ferocious herd following you.

You might say that TV is an accomplice to the internet in providing fuel to the nutjobs and I would say that I partially agree with you. In the not so distant past, I had 6 or 7 channels to watch, now I have 200. This helps the vicious circle, internet nutjobs are backed on TV and TV nutjobs point to their websites. With their own sites and TV channels.

You might say that you have to rationally analyse everything you read on the internet and I would say that I agree with you. Just don’t ask most of the people, you might be surprised by their answer.

And what all of this has to deal with us scientists? We are horrible communicators, most of our websites are dreadful and do no contain any useful information and when we are confronted with a dumb Playboy bombshell we lose the argument. We lose because usually the argument is so ludicrous that we have no patience to explain. We lose because we are unable to communicate in lay terms. We lose because we’re not entertainers or crowd manipulators. We lose because we make our arguments difficult to understand. We lose because we get angry.

We invented the internet, we were the first ones to use it and we still haven’t fully grasped how to take advantage of it. And I think, now it’s too late. We are years behind any other social group. Our social interaction on the internet is laughable and we cannot even create a movement to improve Open Science. And we have another problem: we think we are too clever to accept anyone else’s ideas. And while we do that, we let the internet and dumb Playboy bunnies take care of the future of children. Maybe if all future scientist die because of the lack of mass vaccination, we will learn.