Tag Archives: paul-offit

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.