Penn & Teller vs. the Antivaxxers

I’ve got a bit of an obsession with skepticism lately, so let’s keep rolling. Courtesy Phil Plait (who, by the way, has a new TV show), comes word of this cool clip that I assume is from the latest episode of Bullshit! (I don’t get Showtime): Penn and Teller take on vaccines:

Update: Some followup items inspired by Knarly’s comments in the comments:

26 Responses to “Penn & Teller vs. the Antivaxxers”

  1. knarlyknight Says:

    Anyone care to apply some critical thinking to Penn & Teller’s faulty analysis or is the subject too taboo for this crowd?

  2. shcb Says:

    It’s summer, the elections aren’t close enough for anyone but the hyped news folks to care so go ahead.

  3. knarlyknight Says:

    You’re trying to get me in trouble here.

  4. knarlyknight Says:

    Item #1: Obviously the “vaccine causes autism” hypothesis is not up for discussion, other than to observe that repeatedly shouting a profanity does not facilitate dialogue or understanding, rather it is a sure sign of a tightly closed mind.

  5. knarlyknight Says:

    Item #2: The sheild wall assumes that the vaccine is 100% effective. Some vaccines are not that effective.

    Item #3: The vaccination wall is relatively accurate only if 100% of the population is vaccinated. More accurate to have little sheilds in front of each vaccinated person. The more sheilds, the more likely an incoming disease “ball” (exposure incident) will be stopped before it hits an unvaccinated person which many. At a 90% or 95% vaccination rate and few new sources of exposres an unvaccinated person in a large crowd is pretty safe. If given full and complete information about the disease, modern treatments and recovery rates for *healthy* individuals who get infected, an intelligent, healthy person can make their own choice as to whether the potential side effects (as stated by the vaccine manufacturer) are worth risking for the benerfit of some l

  6. knarlyknight Says:

    Repeat item #3, last post got a bit garbled:

    Item #3: The vaccination wall is relatively accurate only if 100% of the population is vaccinated. Would be more accurate to have little sheilds in front of each vaccinated person. The more sheilds, the more likely an incoming disease “ball” (exposure incident) will be stopped before it hits an unvaccinated person. At a 90% or 95% rate of vaccination in a large population, and few new sources of exposures, an unvaccinated person in the population is pretty safe. If given full and complete information about the disease, modern treatments and recovery rates for *healthy* individuals who get infected, an intelligent, healthy person can make their own choice as to whether the potential side effects (as stated by the vaccine manufacturer) are worth risking for the benefit of some (see item 2) protection.

  7. knarlyknight Says:

    Item #4: They state that the chance of dying from Diptheria in the 1920’s was about 40%. That’s alarmist bullshit.

    It’s alarmist because it is not the 1920’s anymore, so if you get diptheria you can expect much better medical results. If you get diptheria now, your chances that (a) it progresses to a dangerous stage or (2) medical intervention is not successful are completely different than in the 1920’s.

    It’s bullshit because the chance in the 1920’s of dying from Diptheria was less than half that, and even lower if you were an adult. As per medical text sourced on wiki:

    In the 1920s there were an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 cases of diphtheria per year in the United States, causing 13,000 to 15,000 deaths per year.[6] Children represented a large majority of these cases and fatalities.

    You do the math.

  8. shcb Says:

    Yeah, but this is just theatrics, the little guy tossing balls isn’t hitting the correct percentage either. I think they are comparing if 100% is vaccinated vs 0% i.e. before vaccinations.

    I think the hard question to answer in vaccinations is that we are primarily talking about kids here. If an old fart like me doesn’t get a flu vaccination and dies, or better yet a hepatitis vaccination well too bad, that was a choice I made, I didn’t get vaccinated because I thought there was voodoo in there and got some bad blood on me helping someone and died, my bad.

    But when it is a kid and the parent think there is voodoo in there do they have the right to protect their child in the way they see fit?

    We are having this discussion in our family right now, my pregnant and very religious daughter wants to have her kid with a midwife and her spiritual mentor at home instead of having it in the hospital. My mom and her siblings were all born at home, they were all fine so are we being too critical in wanting her to go to the hospital? Or should this legally be her choice? She almost died at birth when the cord tangled around her neck, the same doctor that delivered my granddaughter a couple weeks ago tossed my wife in the air and flipped her at the same time and the heart monitor went back to normal, would the midwife have done that? Would they have just prayed? Tough questions when you start balancing the rights of parents and babies, especially when you bring the government into it.

  9. Smith Says:

    “an intelligent, healthy person can make their own choice as to whether the potential side effects (as stated by the vaccine manufacturer) are worth risking for the benefit of some (see item 2) protection.”

    Shcb already pointed out that this doesn’t apply in the case of children, as they are not being allowed to “make their own choice”.

    Putting that aside, it is worth pointing out that you are not merely choosing for yourself, but rather, you are choosing for everyone who will ever be in contact with you (directly or indirectly). As you helpfully pointed out, vacs are not 100% effective. Of course, when herd immunity is achieved, that really isn’t much of an issue. However, when the level of immunity in the general population for a given disease falls below that level, the sub 100% effectiveness becomes an issue.

    Suppose a given vac is 90% effective. Given herd immunity, the likelihood of an individual encountering the illness targeted by said vac is almost nil. However, suppose we slip below herd immunity. At that point, there is now a nontrivial chance that a vaccinated individual will come into contact with someone who is infected with the illness in question. Now, recognizing that the vac is less than 100% effective, what do you think will begin to happen to individuals who were vaccinated, but still come into contact with the disease? By choosing to forgo the vaccine, you are putting everyone around you at a greater risk of becoming infected. You are choosing not only to increase your risk, but you are also choosing to increase the risk of everyone else. You are the asshole who shows up for work with a serious case of the flu and gives it to everyone else in the office. You are a drunk driver who collides with safe drivers and kills them.

  10. shcb Says:

    good points, the eternal question is where does social pressure fail and government have to take over and which is more effective, I don’t have the answer.

  11. knarlyknight Says:

    Thanks Smith, those are some of the considerations that goes into the equation of making personal decisions. Herd immunity is a useful term, thanks for bringing it in. Vaccine effectiveness (or lack therof) is a legitimate consideration when considering societal public health initiatives and a good reason to encourage people to take vaccines. The larger point you missed is that some people cannot take some vaccines due to allergies, so if herd immunity is reduced by too many people abstaining from vaccines that puts them at a far greater risk than your people who are vaccinated by a dud vaccine.

    It would be helpful to know whether Smith’s comments refer to the flu vaccine or to the polio vaccine. I suspect my opinions would vary depending on whether we are discussing (a) the roll of the dice formulation, rapid manufacture and widespread marketing of flu vaccines with highly variable levels of effectiveness against often relatively benign contagions like flu or (b) a more sacred cow like the Salk vaccine.

    shcb, I’ve assumed parents are responsible for and are making the best choices for their children because most kids supposedly are not capable of becoming fully informed on the issue nor of making such a complicated decision. However, if we are talking about the dumbed down info. we get from drug manufacturers through the standard medical establishment channels (i.e. CDC), then I do not think that is valid as any idiot or two year old should be able to make their decision based on that data. Obviously, parenting etc. brings with it a myriad of issues so I am thankful Smith suggested to put that aside.

    Smith, for the record, I am strongly in favour of good hygene – frequent hand washing, coughing into one’s elbow, keeping surfaces clean, and especially staying out of the office when feeling infectious. Many people are unaware that the time people are most infectious is 7 to ten days before overt symptoms set in, so by the time a person is sneezing and blowing their nose profusely they are not nearly as infectious as they were the week prior to showing symptoms. Most office workers are not aware enough of their own bodies and do not have the luxury of taking a few days off when they feel a little more tired and spaced out for no particular reason – before the real nasty symptoms kick in. So Smith, your *asshole* comment probably applies as much to you as anyone else.

    My comment “an intelligent, healthy person can make their own choice…” is intended to address the current situation, which is IIRC, that we have achieved a good level of herd immunity to most all significant diseases already and the push for 100% compliance is more of a measure to benefit big pharma than it is a legitimate social health issue. Correct me if I am wrong about people in the USA achieving a good level of herd immunity now, but I am more sure it is correct for Canada.

    It seems that personal liberty is not cherished as much as it used to be and Americans are now willing to surrender even the rights over their own bodies at a premature stage for simplicity of implementing a blanket health vaccination policy, rather than err on the side of protecting individual liberty if that might impact the collective good or incur the expense of making more complicated public health decisions. This is not as simple an issue as drunk driving and suggesting that it is is either disingenuine, ignorance or an attempt to tarnish by association with a false comparison.

    shcb informs me that the Penn & Teller piece is just theatrics, I would like to reiterate my observation in item #4 that their piece was alarmist bullshit too. In regard to Diptheria – or most major diseases for that matter – other significant factors besides vaccines and apparently more significant than vaccines were certainly at work to reduce diseases over the past 100 years. Evidenced by the work cited underneath the telling graphs on page 3 of Social Psychology and Health:

    (the author seems legit:

  12. knarlyknight Says:

    for those with little time, the little arrows pointing at the graphs indicate the dates vaccines against each disease was introduced.

    The main conclusion, amoung several, is that: the decline in mortality from these major infectious diseases took place before effective medical interventions, aka vaccines, became available.

  13. shcb Says:

    I agree with you Knarly, that at some point modern medical may make a disease not worth vaccinating, there of course is a gray period as Smith’s calculations of the nubers game points out and then it becomes a judgement call. the point I was trying to make that seemed to get a little lost is the personal liberties issue, but that’s ok, we’ve probably beat a 1 minute video as much as is needed.

  14. knarlyknight Says:

    Modern medical has done some wonders, but I’m learning from “Social Psychology and Health” that it seems to be getting all the credit when in fact other factors (e.g. better management of drinking water and elimination/control of other germ transmission pathways) has probably accounted for more of the disease incidence reduction than medical advances and initiatives like vaccinations. It would be heresy in America to suggest such a thing, with the hold big pharma has on your brains, but I think the firt 5 or 6 pages of the link above provides good basic (paradigm shifting) informatino.

  15. shcb Says:

    It all works together, less disease do to better nutrition and better hygiene leads to better results in vaccinations because of the numbers game Smith described, vaccinations make the hygiene more effective because of the numbers game Smith described. As is so often the case, these things progress in a spiral, it is just a question of an upward or downward spiral. But if you stop one or the other you are likely to stop or reverse the spiral.

  16. knarlyknight Says:

    That’s a good analogy for what you describe, but what you describe is not necessarily fact even though it sounds true to you (or me). There are different math disciplines that gets at the relationships between different variables like vaccinations and hygene and nutrition (e.g. econometrics).
    When you get good data and run the numbers you find that OFTEN the results are surprising and if we found decent, comprehensive studies I think we would all be surprised at how divergent the results are from what vaccine manufacturers (the original source of most medical associations and mainstream media statements) would have us believe.

  17. shcb Says:

    It’s their rice bowl. That’s why you have independent folks do the study or take the non independent with a grain of salt. A university investigating itself is the same thing, global warming research is their rice bowl just as that big halfback on the football team that can’t spell his name is thier rice bowl, everyone is just shocked when they find a “conspiracy” of teachers giving him undeserved grades.

    But back to your point, it’s all a numbers game, even if washing your hands drops your risk 80% if the risk of the vaccine is low it is still worth it.

    I have a chunk of a drill bit in my arm, far away from a joint, the doctors have decided to just leave it in there, after 35 years they figure the risk of infection, even though that risk is very small, is greater than the risk the metal being left in. All a numbers game.

    Now if the risk of negative effects of vaccines can be reasonably proven the equasion changes. Didn’t they stop giving one of the normal childhood vaccines to kids a few years ago because they hadn’t had a case in decades and they decided even a few negative effects of the vaccine wasn’t worth it?

  18. knarlyknight Says:

    I think so; & I mostly agree with your post.

    Thanks for not assuming I meant that one can’t believe anything from the vaccine mfrs.- hence most established medical associans; it’s that grain of salt thing that I was trying to suggest (my skepticism is more like a tablespoon, but to each their own.)

    I’d like to see some some results for different countries based on vaccination rates but that seriously consider more than that one variable. I.e that do not assume at the outset of the study that vaccination is the determining variable. Maybe I can find something if I have time to look tonight. Forget it, I have more important things to do and beer to drink.

  19. shcb Says:

    Good choice :)

    I can never remember which end of the country you are in, I am going to Buffalo in October and will have Sunday afternoon to do some sightseeing, I was thinking of going to Niagra falls since I’ve never been there, is it worth taking my passport and going to the Canadian side or should I be asking NL?

  20. knarlyknight Says:

    That’d be NL, I’m about as far West as a guy can go.

    I went to the Canadian Nigarara Falls side about 8 years ago. It was fun & quite pretty. You’ll like it if you like big theme parks filled with American tourists (there are worse things!) By all means, come on up and spend your money!!!

  21. NorthernLite Says:

    Hey shcb, not trying to be bias here, but the Canadian side of the Falls has much, much more going on than the NY side. The view of the falls from this side is really nice, actually it’s downright beautiful. This is because you’re looking towards the U.S. side where it’s not commercialized so the view is just of the natural beauty of the Falls.

    There’s plenty of “touristy” things to do: ride a boat under the falls, really nice casinos, haunted houses, wax museums, good restaurants, midway rides and so on. And if you’re into wine, it’s pretty much the wine capital of Canada. You can take tours through all the vineyards and get pretty wasted by the time you’re done :) I did one in the spring by bicycle and it was a really good time!

  22. shcb Says:

    Thanks guys, now the question is do I go a day early on my own dime so I can see some things. My travel partner vowed to never leave the country after we got back from China so he let his passport expire. I may have to go early just so I can ditch him without ditching him if you know what I mean.

    my other option was to go with a lazy no skilled slug with a passport but I have too much work to do Monday-Wednesday for that. We’re siesmic testing at the University at $10k per day plus expenses so time is of theessence.

    I’m thinking that jet boat ride looks like a kick. I like wine too :)

    sounds like I’ve made up my mind

  23. shcb Says:

    I could take my wife and make some points, hmm.

  24. shcb Says:


  25. shcb Says:

    Well, my reputation on this site as an idiot was confirmed tonight, I asked my wife if she wanted to go on this trip with me.

  26. knarlyknight Says:

    shcb, I can top that. My coffee date yesterday was with this woman whose computer profile picture looked a bit like Morgan Fairchild, and who in person looked a lot like Morgan Fairchild except taller and with slightly more prominent, err, features, plus she has brains as she works in medical research. The stupid part is that I asked if her kids were vaccinated, and then blabbered on about herd immunity with about as much success as I’ve done here. Wrong topic, wrong time. Simple case of my losing sight of the goals, and they were even hovering right in front of me.

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