Applying the Scientific Method to Vaccination

Joy: “All these facts and opinions look the same. I can’t tell them apart. “

Bing Bong: “Happens to me all the time. Don’t worry about it”.- Pixar’s Inside Out

Ah, the scientific method. People love to bring up the scientific method when talking about vaccination. Most will tell you that the scientific method supports vaccination. Actually it doesn’t.

What is the scientific method? Some people seem to struggle with what exactly it is, so here’s the definition: “...the process by which scientists, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world.” So we’re talking about a method for testing hypotheses to see if our ideas translate to what actually goes on in the natural world. It’s based on observation, not popularity.

The Scientific Method has four steps:

“1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.

2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.

3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.

4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

If the experiments bear out the hypothesis it may come to be regarded as a theory or law of nature.”

So let’s apply the Scientific Method to the idea that vaccines stop the spread of illnesses.

1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.

People are not severely disabled or dying in large numbers from infectious diseases. The spread of these diseases appears to be uncommon amongst vaccinated populations.

2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.

The hypothesis is that vaccines create immunity in the vaccinated individual by getting the immune system to recognize and then fight off infectious agents without the individual actually developing the disease. If enough individuals are vaccinated, the disease will be eliminated or eradicated in a particular area or even across the whole world.

3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.

So based on our hypothesis we think that vaccines could be formulated for all kinds of diseases and that they could lead to a disease free world. We would expect that vaccines would eliminate most incidences of disease (maybe 80-99% if we’re going to put a number on it).

4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

…And here is where we start running into problems. Studies on large populations of vaccinated and unvaccinated populations have not been carried out. We have many studies for the approval of individual vaccines, but  we do not have tests run by several independent experimenters. Even the approval tests of vaccines do not fulfill this requirement because they are tests on specific vaccines for release onto the market and they are carried out by the pharmaceutical companies who have developed them- not independent experimenters who have no stake in the outcome.

In fact, media darling Dr. Paul Offit said in his interview to PBS that such experiments comparing the health of large numbers of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals would be impossible because people who choose not to vaccinate are so mentally incompetent that the results can’t be accurately assessed. But if we can’t run such experiments, then we’re not dealing with a scientific fact, law or even hypothesis, we’re dealing with a  matter of belief or opinion. And the government certainly has no constitutional right to force opinions, beliefs and preferences on us.

Other problems with applying the scientific method to vaccination is that arguments in favor of vaccination have been subject to a number of biases related to the scientific method. They overlook information that does not support the use of vaccination (such as lack of efficacy and modified illnesses in vaccinated individuals that are still communicable, but lack classic symptoms.) They also overlook information pointing to other improvements in health that could explain a decrease in morbidity and mortality such as nutrition and sanitation. Another common one is the idea that vaccination is so safe and so essential and so established that we don’t need to run tests and experiments comparing the health of individuals or disease occurrence in populations- especially accounting for non-classical symptoms. And everyone I have met who supports the use of vaccination seems to be falling error to the most fundamental mistake of the scientific method: assuming that the hypothesis is an explanation for the phenomenon observed.

Also problematic with the concept of disease eradication is the concept of reproducibility.

“Independent confirmation of a scientific hypothesis through reproduction by an independent researcher/lab is at the core of the scientific method.” So when we start talking about eradicating measles, polio, etc. just like we eradicated smallpox, we’re not dealing with a fact. There is no fact or law that a disease can be completely eradicated from the planet, because the declaration of eradication has only happened once. (And there are significant problems with it that are rarely discussed.) Assuming that all of the ideas eradication is based on hold true, it’s only been done once and has not yet been reproduced by anyone. Yet a great deal of public health policy is based on the hypothesis of eradication and simply assumes that it is true.

Vaccination may be popular, yes, but its current use in not based on systematic observations and experimentation.

 

 

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