At the end of last week, I wrote an article which was eventually titled "Vaccine Denial = Scientific Illiteracy." The article was posted on Monday and has since received a lot of feedback on either side. Though part of me expected it, another part of me was confused as hell. True, my article contained some bile. It was a reaction to my feeling that the scientific side of the argument was not represented on the Huffington Post and this bothered me a great deal. More, I found the idea of non-scientific thought influencing public policy to be disconcerting, to say the least.
More confusion came when I started actually reading through the comments. I tried to understand the anti-vaccination thought process. From my point of view, vaccines are good things. They keep us from getting a variety of horrible illnesses and make our lives that much easier.
I tried to think through the anti-vaccine point of view, but as a man who thinks in terms of narrative, I had a problem with the story the anti-vaxers were telling. After all, if scientists and doctors knew that vaccines caused autism, wouldn't there be research scientists working furiously to create vaccines which didn't? Market forces would dictate that they not only create the new vaccines, but loudly trumpet their studies that conclusively showed the harmful side effects of the old. They'd instantly corner the market. But this hasn't happened. So I tried to think and I posed the question to myself "Why would this not happen if vaccines really did cause autism?" And the only thing I could come up with was some sort of vast, over-arching global conspiracy. But why? Who would benefit at all from kids having autism? Because it wouldn't really be the drug companies. There are no singular drugs to help kids with autism, most of the help for them comes from therapies, special education classes, and attentive parents. True, many sufferers of autism have other issues and are prescribed anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, drugs for ADHD or anxiety, and a smorgasbord of others, but there aren't any across the board treatments for all kids with autism. As far as I could tell, there were no benefits that would be gained by a drug company creating a vaccine that produced autism in children that they wouldn't get by producing a vaccine that didn't.
The story just didn't work for me. I'll admit, I didn't see the point. So I turned the question around. And I asked myself "What do the people who believe that vaccines cause autism gain for their belief?" And I think I've figured it out.
A friend of mine suspects that its about parents feeling guilt due to passing on autistic genes, but I don't agree. First of all, if they do, they shouldn't. We can't help what's in our genetic code or what we pass on. It's just not how our reproductive systems work. But more, I believe that fear is a far more overriding emotion in the human psyche than guilt. I can't imagine the pain that a parent would suffer, finding out that their child has an ailment that will impact the rest of their life. But I think what must be a worse feeling is knowing that nothing you could have done could have prevented it, and the dread from knowing that you can't stop something bad from happening again. As paradoxical as it may initially seem, I think the belief that autism is caused by vaccines gives anti-vaccinationists a sense of security.
It's an exceedingly human reaction. It's how we react to everything that scares us. For example, 9-11 conspiracy theorists. No matter what flavor of the conspiracy you have, it comes down to it somehow being an inside job. The 9-11 conspiracist is able to believe that someone let these men do what they did, and that our security wasn't compromised by men who just wanted to do us harm, and that therefore they won't be able to do it again.
None of us are completely immune to these fears. That the world is not ours to control, that random bad things can happen to any of us at any time, that perhaps it doesn't matter what we do -- this is a terrifying notion, and I can understand why it could be even worse for a parent who has to watch these random acts of horror to happen to their child.
I don't hate anti-vaccinationists. I don't think that they're right, and I don't want public policy to be influenced by their beliefs, but I honestly have no vitriol for them in my heart. There are reasons why we view the world through the filters we have. Our brains are designed to construct patterns; we're marvelous at it. It's one of the true geniuses of the human brain. But we can sometimes construct patterns when they aren't there, seeing faces in wood grain, for instance -- because evolution has dictated that babies should be able to recognize a face in an instant.
Since I declared myself a skeptic, I have often had to defend my lack of belief. I have come to accept that in many ways, I vigorously deny that which I can't prove because I know that in my youth, I was swept into believing a few rather ridiculous things and I don't want to allow that to happen again. This is why I believe what I believe. Ask yourself, why do you?