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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