The Anti-Vaccine Movement and the Rejection of Science

Already covered to death, it’s been on my book­marks list since I read the fol­low­ing from Wired edit­or Mark Horow­itz on it’s day of pub­lic­a­tion:

Best/worst day. Story I am proudest of assign­ing and edit­ing at Wired goes live today. […] But I also lose job. Bum­mer!

That story is a fant­ast­ic­ally well writ­ten and researched art­icle look­ing at the snake oil peddled by the anti-vac­cine crowd and why people listen to, and fall for, their pseudo-sci­ence (i.e. per­ceived risk and irra­tion­al­ity).

The rejec­tion of hard-won know­ledge is by no means a new phe­nomen­on. In 1905, French math­em­atician and sci­ent­ist Henri Poin­caré said that the will­ing­ness to embrace pseudo-sci­ence flour­ished because people “know how cruel the truth often is, and we won­der wheth­er illu­sion is not more con­sol­ing.” Dec­ades later, the astro­nomer Carl Sagan reached a sim­il­ar con­clu­sion: Sci­ence loses ground to pseudo-sci­ence because the lat­ter seems to offer more com­fort. “A great many of these belief sys­tems address real human needs that are not being met by our soci­ety,” Sagan wrote of cer­tain Amer­ic­ans’ embrace of rein­carn­a­tion, chan­nel­ing, and extra­ter­restri­als. “There are unsat­is­fied med­ic­al needs, spir­itu­al needs, and needs for com­mu­nion with the rest of the human com­munity.”

Look­ing back over human his­tory, ration­al­ity has been the anom­aly. Being ration­al takes work, edu­ca­tion, and a sober determ­in­a­tion to avoid mak­ing hasty infer­ences, even when they appear to make per­fect sense. Much like infec­tious dis­eases them­selves — beaten back by dec­ades of effort to vac­cin­ate the popu­lace — the irra­tion­al lingers just below the sur­face, wait­ing for us to let down our guard.

I post this now as in recent days Andrew Wake­field—the phys­i­cian who linked the three-in-one MMR vac­cine to aut­ism—has had his ori­gin­al art­icle fully retrac­ted by the med­ic­al journ­al The Lan­cet after the Gen­er­al Med­ic­al Coun­cil found he acted “dis­hon­estly and irre­spons­ibly” with “cal­lous dis­reg­ard” and had a con­flict of interest in his study.

2 thoughts on “The Anti-Vaccine Movement and the Rejection of Science

  1. Amy Thibodeau

    I have a sis­ter with severe aut­ism and a host of oth­er devel­op­ment­al chal­lenges and through my exper­i­ence with her, I ended up doing a lot of work with spe­cial needs people, par­tic­u­larly when I was between the ages of 16 and 22 or so. I remem­ber back then how com­mon the per­cep­tion was that vac­cines aren’t safe – even doc­tors and physio ther­ap­ists were say­ing that they were a risk and as a res­ult par­ents often felt con­sumed by guilt over the thought that their child’s ill­ness could have been pre­ven­ted.

    As par­ents and rel­at­ives of people with dis­ab­il­it­ies, you are just look­ing for some way to under­stand how your child or your sib­ling could have been born with so many health, intel­lec­tu­al and emo­tion­al prob­lems. Vac­cines always feel like a good place to start, espe­cially as sci­ence does­n’t offer a lot of answers.

    In my opin­ion, cri­ti­cism should be focused on people like Wake­field who are tak­ing advant­age of the fra­gil­ity of so many people who are just try­ing to under­stand what went wrong, while also find­ing a solu­tion for a loved one who is often suf­fer­ing and caus­ing a huge strain on their fam­ily – usu­ally with min­im­al sup­port or relief from the gov­ern­ment. We are taught to trust the word of the med­ic­al industry whole sale and it is easy to for­get that there is an entire lobby of interest groups and bil­lions of dol­lars at stake driv­ing the answers and solu­tions offered by so many experts in the med­ic­al com­munity. It is easy to be irra­tion­al in the face of it all.

    Thanks for post­ing this. :)

  2. Lloyd Morgan Post author


    I think this is a key part of the prob­lem: when con­fron­ted with the anguish of hav­ing a child with neurodevel­op­ment­al dis­orders (e.g. aut­ism) par­ents and close rel­at­ives want an answer… an explan­a­tion.

    It’s nat­ur­al to want this and to blame a par­ent who is pas­sion­ate about an issue they have been mis­in­formed about is to not com­pre­hend the com­plete issue.

    As you say, sci­ence does­n’t offer a lot of answers on these top­ics and this is because the nature of the sci­entif­ic meth­od does­n’t lend itself to mak­ing firm, black-and-white dis­tinc­tions. The dis­tinc­tions like this are what people want.

    Again, I can­’t agree more: the ‘blame’ (although it’s not as easy as ‘blame’) lies more with the people like Wake­field who enter this arena without think­ing of the full con­sequence of their actions. Con­clu­sions such as his gain such momentum as it provides a reas­on, and this has proved det­ri­ment­al to so many chil­dren who have become ser­i­ously ill or even died from com­pletely pre­vent­able dis­eases.

    Thanks for the com­ment… enlight­en­ing.

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