Cynthia Nevison is a climate scientist, and although she is right about climate – as far as we can tell, her efforts support the consensus among experts thoroughly anchored in an enormous body of evidence pointing in the same direction – that doesn’t make her an expert on other areas of science, areas on which she has no relevant expertise but nevertheless opts to disagree with just as firmly established scientific conclusions. Unfortunately, going idiotic denialist about other areas of science tends of course to jeopardize her position of authority, at least in the public eye, on climate change. And it will be used against her, and against climate science in general, by climate change denialists.
So, what’s up? Well, Nevison is also a board member of SafeMinds, an anti-vaccine organization, and has herself pushed some serious antivaccine nonsense. Officially, Nevison’s position is a call for moderation: “In the majority of mainstream articles in newspapers, magazines, and on-line sites, one is either for vaccines or against them. The possibility of a middle ground is not acknowledged,” which is simply the familiar false compromise fallacy. (It’s interesting to see the hoops she’d have to go through to avoid making the same argument with regard to climate change denialism.) Of course, Nevison is really against vaccines, but it sounds rhetorically better to tout herself as the moderate voice. And her arguments for her anti-vaccine position are, of course, the usual combination of non sequiturs, post-hoc fallacies (reminder) and bad science and pseudoscience, with the usual dash of conspiracy theories. For instance, Nevison complains that parents are “mocked” for “for wanting to protect their children from developing these chronic, sometimes debilitating, and often lifelong health conditions” (“[t]he most pressing health problem facing American children today is not measles, but rather the rise in chronic immune system and neurological disorders,” which is true since few people today actually contract measles because of vaccines), which is false but tellingly assumes that there is a link between vaccines and these conditions, which, of course, there isn’t.
Nevison’s position is apparently based on the following five “facts” (for a more thorough discussion of these “facts”, go here):
1. Autism is caused by improper brain synapse formation (true).
2. Empirical data shows autism is on the rise (false: empirical data strongly suggest that the rise in autism diagnoses is a combination of changing criteria and increased awareness.)
3. Autism is caused by environmental triggers but the government continues to spend most of its money searching for the elusive “autism gene” (false: autism is to a large extent genetic, regardless of what denialists claim, and it is interesting that Nevison just assumes that the environmental component must be vaccines without further evidence).
4. The increase in the number of childhood vaccines correlates with the increase in autism (no: see point 2; the increase in autism diagnoses also correlates at least as well with the change in sales of organic food, by the way.)
5. Asking whether our packed vaccine schedule might be a trigger for autism is a scientifically plausible question that is not equivalent to climate change denial (false: the hypothesis might not have been prima facie stupid, but at present it is as thoroughly refuted as any scientific hypothesis has ever been, and continuing to stick with it is probably even more delusionally denialist than sticking with the claim that climate isn’t changing; Nevison, though, supports her claim by claiming, laughably falsely, that “[e]pidemiology cannot address underlying biological mechanisms” and that there is a conspiracy to cover up research fraud – yup, it’s the CDC “whistleblower” conspiracy (background here).
Of course, Nevison herself actually tries to compare those who deny that vaccines cause autism with climate change denialism, in what must be close to a world record in tortured reasoning.
Diagnosis: Crazy, hardcore denialist, but it is at least a very good example of how compartmentalization works, when she engages in precisely the same types of denialist gambits about a field in which she has no expertise, that she at the same time lament that people are using against her own field of expertise. The comparison should be telling, but to someone like Nevison it isn’t.
Hat-tip: Respectful insolence.