On Vaccines and Autism: An Open Letter to Larry Wilmore

The Nightly Show's Larry Wilmore knows vaccines are safe...his guests don't.

Posted Jan 29, 2015

The following is an open letter to Larry Wilmore, the host of the new “The Nightly Show,” following his show (Jan 27, 2015) on vaccines.

Dear Larry,

This week on The Nightly Show, you took on the topic of vaccines—and you made it clear that you know they are safe and effective. Unfortunately, however, watching your show last night likely led many to be more skeptical of vaccines than they had previously been. Simply stated, you put an anti-vaccination advocate (i.e., anti-vaxer) on your panel, but did not include anyone on the panel who had the skills or knowledge to debunk her claims. Consequently, your show just became her megaphone.

Creating a false sense of equivalence is a real problem in the news media. A one on one debate between a scientist and a dissenter can create the impression that there is division in the scientific community, when in fact there is none. (Jon Oliver, another Daily Show vet, recently made this point by having 97 climate scientists debate 3 global warming skeptics.) But your mistake was even worse; you paired an anti-vaxer with two comedians and a science news correspondent. This not only made the anti-vaxer seem more relevant, but enabled her to get her talking points across without anyone to dispute her.  She even spouted a conspiracy theory that has been thoroughly debunked by snopes.com—and no one said anything!

If you’d had an anti-anti-vaxer expert on the panel, this would not have happened. They would have been familiar with the tired arguments she gave and been able to knock them down quickly. Instead, you and the panelists were blindsided—mouth agape at some points—and even seemed to agree with her on some points. Anyone watching who was unfamiliar with the facts, or the vaccine debate, would have even thought that she “won.”

Now, I know it’s a comedy show—but it’s not just a comedy show. You are making points and an increasing number of people get their news from shows like yours. You have an obligation to be responsible. You need not get rid of all the comedians or pop-artists on your panel; but, when necessary, replace one of them with a relevant expert. Specifically, when you are talking about pseudoscience, include an expert on pseudoscience!   

You may have thought you had one, but unfortunately, a science news correspondent, even if she is a doctor, is not an expert on pseudoscience—not even medical pseudoscience. She knows that vaccines works—but she’s not versed in “anti-vax” rhetoric. You need someone who is familiar with their arguments and the “facts” that they throw around—who knows why they are wrong, fallacious and misleading. You need someone who knows all the studies, both good and bad; you need someone who is an expert in critical thinking and can identify fallacious arguments. You need someone who has debated and lectured on these kinds of topics before. You need a scientific skeptic.

My suggestion: Steven Novella, a neuroscientist, assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine, host of the long running weekly podcast “The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe,” and editor of the blog Science-Based Medicine. (Just to be clear: I have no connection to Steve, and he has not asked me to suggest him as a guest. I just know—he is who you need! And if he can’t do, he’ll know someone who will.)  He can handle any topic of pseudoscience you might cover. And if he had been there, he would have debunked everything the anti-vaxer had to say, in just a few seconds.

Anti-Vaxer: “Did you know that the vaccine manufacturers stand to make $40 billion on vaccines this year.”

Yeah, that’s what happens when treatments work and are safe. Heart surgery produces big bucks, but that doesn’t mean it’s dangerous and ineffective.

Anti-Vaxer: “But did you hear about the CDC whistleblower (William Thompson) that revealed that the CDC hid the fact that, in their study that “proved” that vaccines don’t cause autism, black boys who received the vaccine were 3.4 times more likely to have autism.”

That didn’t happen! Thompson isn’t a whistleblower; he’s still a senior researcher at the CDC and publicly maintains that vaccines are safe and effective, for all ages and races. You’re quoting a CNN iReport—which is a crowdsourcing platform where anyone can submit content. It was filed by the anti-vaxer enthusiast Brain Hooker, his claims were never verified, his “video evidence” was clearly doctored, and the results of that study have always been available to the public (and clearly show no link between vaccines and autism). Besides, even if you’re right—your kids are not black males. So why aren’t you vaccinating them?

Anti-Vaxer: “Because I don’t trust the government.”

This is why you shouldn’t give a voice to anti-vaxers. They are just conspiracy theorists. No matter what evidence you give them, they’ll just dismiss it as being faked by the government. In fact, studies have shown that the more counter evidence you show them, the more entrenched they become. It’s not worth debating with someone who will never change their mind. I’ll change mind if you show me a peer-reviewed, well-controlled, double-blinded and replicated study. But she will continue to believe what she believes, no matter what evidence is produced. That’s not virtuous—that’s insane.

Anti-Vaxer: “I do what I do because I’m concerned for the health of my children.”

We all want to safeguard our children’s health, but not vaccinating them accomplishes the exact opposite. The development of vaccines was one of the single largest leaps forward in pediatric health. It’s only been because most parents vaccinated their children that people like you could enjoy the “luxury” of not bothering with vaccinations without consequence. But as more people listen to you, the more dangerous forgoing vaccination becomes. When hundreds of thousands of children are again dying each year from horrible but preventable diseases, anti-vaxers will be rightfully vilified and vaccines will be demanded as a right. The “freedom to not vaccinate” will be laughable.

In short, Larry, I’m not asking you to not put pseudoscientists on your show. After all, they can be hilarious. But, unless you put an expert on pseudoscience across the table from them, they are dangerous. I know you are a rational guy, and want to stand up for science—you just don’t have the expertise to do so. So please, next time, find someone who does.  

Best,

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D.

Department of Philosophy, King’s College

Copyright, 2015 David Kyle Johnson