Skepticalscience and John Cook’s vaccine misinformation

John Cook is doing a fellowship at the University of Queensland. He has recently released a presentation that spreads vaccine misinformation on the propagandist website Skepticalscience

The Cook co-authored presentation includes a slide about a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) flyer on flu vaccines. It claims that attempting to correct a ‘myth’ can familiarize readers to the myth.

To illustrate, Cook and co-authors show the flyer which lists ‘myths’ about influenza vaccines and provides correct information beneath each item. Item #3 is “The side effects are worse than the flu”, which is countered by “The worst side effect you’re likely to get with injectable vaccine is a sore arm”

cdc flyer flu cook lewandowsky

From the CDC flyer on influenza vaccines

Cook and authors believe this approach is wrong. Instead, they insist that only correct information (‘facts’) be provided. The authors advocate saying: “–The vaccine is safe! The worst side effect would be a sore arm.”

john cook lewandowsky vaccine misinformation

Presentation slide by Cook and co-authors on message about flu vaccine

This is outright false information. There are several adverse effects associated with an injectable flu vaccine, the least harmful of which is a sore arm. Far worse adverse events are possible, ranging from fever to severe allergic reactions. Fortunately, these are rare. What vaccinees need is to be informed in an appropriate manner about the probabilities of these events.

Cook gets rid of key phrases, adds new words and an exclamation point to the CDC’s careful language. An optimistic statement about probabilities has been mutated into a false categorical declaration about absolute risk from a vaccine.  What one hears now sounds like a burger sales pitch by a marketing team. It is the Susan Joy Hassol brand of ‘science communication’.

The live-attenuated vaccine administered as a nasal spray can result in a mild flu-like illness. In a given season, it is quite possible and likely that individuals note their mild symptoms following the vaccine and contrast them with unvaccinated members who show no visible illness. The origin of the misconception likely lies in this specific context. The CDC text addresses these points.

Cook’s approach, instead, is to label the whole thing as just a ‘myth’.

Yeah. That should clear up all confusion.

Postscript: Cook and Lewandowsky’s conclusion that repeating a so-called myth will reinforce it, comes from their colleague Nobert Schwarz’s presumptuous “Skurnik, I., Yoon, C., & Schwarz, N. (2007). Education about flu can reduce intentions to get a vaccination”. We learn, from a Schwarz review article in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, that Skurnik et al showed subjects two leaflets one being the CDC flyer and the other a simple ‘facts’ sheet. Those who saw the CDC flyer misremembered more myths as facts on a true/false questionnaire, after a time delay. How such a study design can reflect either the intentions or the true state of knowledge of potential vaccine recipients than rather the test-taking strategies of experimental subjects is beyond me.

Incidentally, ‘Skurnik, Yoon and Schwarz (2007)’ is…unpublished.

Consider what Cook does on his website. He takes a purported ‘myth’ which is usually a caricatural simplification of an original question and start off confidently pretending that there is a clear-cut refutation. The refutation is constituted by an  answer that is often over-simplified to the point of falseness. When all messy questions that arise from reality are ‘myths’, all answers are simple.

Cook should keep his shenanigans to climate and stop spreading false information on vaccines and matters of public health and safety.



  1. omanuel

    The sad fact is just this and nothing less:

    Fear of the “nuclear fires” that consumed Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 Aug 1945 and 9 Aug 1945

    Persuaded world leaders and leaders of the scientific community to lead society down a path to insanity – loss of contact with reality – on 24 Oct 1945..

    Every atom, every living cell, every structure in the solar system is continuously connected to the “nuclear fires” that burn in the Sun’s pulsar core – the Creator, Destroyer and Sustainer of lives and worlds.

    With kind regards,
    Oliver K. Manuel
    Former NASA Principal
    Investigator for Apollo

  2. hro001

    It never ceases to amaze me how many of these “science communication” experts seem to have adopted faux historian and Holocaust denier, David Irving’s “add a word here, change a word there” mode of doing history (or in this case “science”)

  3. MostlyHarmless

    Leave out the bits you don’t like – post-normal “climate science” in a nutshell.

    BTW the nuts are doomed to extinction, along with millions of species that remain undiscovered, and will never be discovered before they become extinct and disappear from the Earth. I read that somewhere – worrying isn’t it?

  4. Brad Keyes

    “The origin of the misconception likely lies in this specific context. The CDC text addresses these points.

    Cook’s approach, instead, is to label the whole thing as just a ‘myth’.”

    Cook isn’t much better than his mentor Lewandowsky at putting himself in another person’s cognitive and emotional shoes. The total empathic disability they both exhibit is, I’d suggest, incompatible with calling oneself a psychologist.

    As a rule, outside the psychiatric context, if psychologist ψ can’t explain why person p believes belief b except by irrationalising and pathologising p, it’s an intellectual failure on the part of ψ, not p.

  5. Pingback: Global warming denier! Vaxxer! …etc – Shub Niggurath Climate
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