4 06 2009

Here’s an interesting discussion of the current anti-vaccine brouhaha:


A comment made by one of the participants in that discussion reveals what I consider to be one of the two foundations of the anti-vaccine animus:

“Ever heard about Monsanto ? Go search Youtube. How about all the banned pesticides of the past ? They are still in our environment.  Too late to turn back the clock now. Where were you and when we needed someone to fight the toxic Big-Agri and Big-Pharma.

This isn’t crazy talk…  These are concerned parents.  Unlike Doctors, they can’t be bought and sold by Drug company sales representatives.”

I think the above is hopelessly muddled, for the following reasons.

First,  it seems reasonable to listen to scientists with at least a degree of respect when they talk about their areas of expertise. One need only look around our world and think about how people lived before the scientific method began to be routinely used in order to see that science WORKS.  So when scientist in a field unite in stating scientific fact Y, I think it is only rational to accord a strong presumption of correctness to what they say.

Unfortunately, in some contexts in this century there have been such scary cases of APPLICATIONS of science going wrong that now lots of people are suspicious of anything scientific.

But look at the differences between pesticides, the great recent American example of science doing harm, and vaccinations:

1. It’s extremely likely that there is and was hugely more money to be made from pesticides than there is from vaccinations, so there was more incentive to lie or engage in wishful thinking about them when initial decisions were being made as to whether to deploy them.

2. Pesticides and their use were exclusively mediated by business. That is, pesticides came into use in a big way back in the 1950s when there was no EPA to question their safety. Everyone who made the initial decisions about pesticides and where and how to use them had the prospect of certain or possible profit from their use, so of course they had a big incentive to ignore dangers and evidence of dangers. In short, they went for the pesticides full tilt, with eyes firmly closed. We see this phenomenon of profit-induced blindness routinely in all kinds of business everywhere.

Vaccines, by contrast, have been in use for 100 years, are evaluated by professional scientists, and are used in the context of the practice of medicine, where a high level of concern for patients is taught and constantly reinforced in the profession. This  is very likely to outweigh whatever small profit a doctor may make in advocating and giving vaccines.

3. Every danger has to be evaluated on its own. It’s fuzzy thinking of the worst kind to say, “Science/technology caused harm in past situation X, so from now on I will assume that it will always cause harm in every application, even when trained experts, applying the scientific method, have reached the conclusion that it won’t.”

But there is another,  more fundamental  illogic at play here on the part of at least some anti-vaccination parents. Americans are taught (in my view erroneously) that all Americans are powerful, that there is a solution to every human illness and species of misfortune, and that you and I are just as good at finding those solutions as the experts. If there ever was a recipe for WISHFUL THINKING, this is it.

Let’s say, against this background of unexamined cultural assumptions, that you are one-half of an affluent American couple, and one day you are told that your child is autistic — and you are also told that the cause of the autism is genetic and nothing can be done for your child. Are you likely to accept this truth and start learning to live with autism?

Not bloody likely! All your experience from other contexts has show that you know how to get things done in the world, have the money to get things done, and are articulate enough to convince others to join you in doing something.

You will move heaven and earth to find  a cure for the autism — and therefore to “discover” a cause for it that you and parents like you have the power to affect. Further assertions by experts  that the autism is as has been described to you will fall on deaf ears. The Great American Strain of Anti-intellectualism virtually assures that.

No-one wants to admit defeat. And here in the USA we find doing so positively un-American! The confluence of this ingrained cultural assumption with the skepticism about technology that’s grown up in recent decades is enough to explain the anti-vaccination agitation.




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