Fighting the New Stupidity

02/06/2015 05:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015
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The ridiculous right and the loony left are in agreement: Vaccinations are a government plot to give your child autism. As longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer noted long ago, the nominal ideological differences between different groups of extremists are negligible. However divergent their doctrines, fringe groups are united by a deep bond of irrationality. The nuts we will have with us always, even unto the end of the world, so why get too exercised about this latest excrescence of goofiness? Two reasons: First, some of the prospective GOP presidential candidates have made noises friendly to the anti-vaxxers. Rand Paul offered an anecdote about children who are "walking and talking" but then develop severe mental problems after being vaccinated. Wow. Did this guy get his medical diploma from a Crackerjack box?

A second and deeper reason for being concerned is that the anti-vaccination clique, though small, is another symptom of what I call "the New Stupidity," the flight of sizable segments of American society and culture from scientific rationality. As I noted in an earlier post ("How did we Become a Society Fearful of Science?"), over the past few decades there has been an increasing tendency, evident on both the political left and the political right, to dismiss the findings of science and to disparage scientific methods and the canons of scientific rationality. We find increasingly that science gives way to dogma and that the operant definition of "truth" becomes "whatever my gut tells me." The flight from science started in the 1980s with the rise of "scientific" creationism, and with the advent in the 1990s of its dressed-up cousin, "intelligent design" (see Living with Darwin by Philip Kitcher). It continued more recently with manufactured doubt about human-caused climate change (see Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway). In the ivory tower, anti-science has haunted departments of literature and fields such as the sociology of knowledge (see Higher Superstition, by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt).

It is easy to bemoan these developments. It is also easy to despair. As the saying goes, the gods themselves strive in vain against stupidity. If we want to oppose anti-science, we have to ponder the strategies that might work and those that will not. Below I give three strategies against anti-science. The first one definitely will not work; the second one might, and the third one is the most likely to be effective.

(1) Reason. Don't bother trying to refute creationism, climate-change denialism, or the anti-vaccination propaganda. These have all been refuted time and time again. Experts have repeatedly offered copious, point-by-point answers to every claim of the science deniers. There really is nothing left to say. Everyone who can be persuaded by the scientific evidence is persuaded by it, leaving only those who will not be persuaded. Reason cannot move those whose belief is not based on reason.

(2) Ridicule. Ridicule sometimes works. It is especially effective in deflating the powerful and pompous (like Rand Paul). Tina Fey deserves a Medal of Freedom for the patriotic service she did with her deadly, spot-on impersonation of Sarah Palin. However, ridicule, like brute force, is a blunt instrument that sometimes works and sometimes backfires. Silly people do not give up their absurdity when you ridicule them. They may only retreat until the sting of humiliation wears off and then come back for more.

(3) A bit of history. This might have the best chance of working with the anti-vaxxers. People who doubt the worth of vaccines need to be reminded -- in graphic terms -- just what it was like when people lived in desperate fear of dreadful diseases against which they had virtually no protection. Here are some instances:

In 18th Century Europe, in a bad year, smallpox would account for 10 percent of all deaths. People were so desperate to avoid death or hideous disfigurement from smallpox that they would inject themselves with infected matter from people who had had only a mild case of the disease, hoping to only have a light case themselves and immunity thereafter. Sometimes this worked, and sometimes it did not and the full ravages of the disease were suffered. Finally, in 1796 physician Edward Jenner discovered that if you infected patients with the mild cowpox vaccine, then they would be immune to smallpox ("vaccine" comes from vacca, the Latin word for "cow"). So successfully did this procedure prevent smallpox that Napoleon had his whole army vaccinated.

In July 1885, a nine-year-old Alsatian boy named Joseph Meister was mauled by a mad dog. He was so badly bitten that he was certainly doomed to a horrible death, or, at least, he would have been at any previous time of human history. His desperate mother took him to Paris and begged Louis Pasteur to save her son. Pasteur had developed a vaccine against rabies that worked perfectly on dogs, but had never been tried on humans. Moved by the boy's terrible plight, Pasteur proceeded with the injections. The doomed boy was spared that most feared of diseases.

The year I was born, 1952, there was a terrible polio epidemic that killed thousands and crippled tens of thousands more. In those days parents lived in dread of summer, when the innocent fun of childhood might expose their loved ones to a scourge that withered limbs or condemned victims to the living death of an iron lung. One of my earliest memories is of standing in line for hours at age four to get the sugar cube with the vaccine, a miracle of deliverance for people of my generation. Doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were national heroes, and the sight of toddlers hobbling in braces began to fade into a memory.

Vaccines are a great triumph of the human intellect over ancient evils. That triumph must not be dimmed by ignorance, paranoia, and demagoguery.