Inoculated Against the Truth

07/10/2017 12:22 pm ET
By John Vachon for the United States Farm Security Administration. Source: Wikimedia

The City of Angels is in the throes of the fiercest mumps epidemic in recent memory. Over three dozen LA citizens have reported to doctors complaining of typical mumps symptoms, and while this is a relatively small percentage of the city’s overall population at present, the number belies the danger posed by this disease. Not only is it prone to rapid proliferation, its symptoms don’t typically appear until a week after an infected person becomes contagious, meaning the potential for the disease’s undetected spread is substantial. The outbreak L.A. is currently experiencing is hardly unique either. This year alone 5,833 cases of mumps were documented in the United States, the highest number in a decade.

While health officials offer no definitive answer, there’s little doubt that the correlation between the return of nearly eradicated diseases in the United States and the rise of the anti-vaccination movement is more than just mere coincidence. Far from being harmless malcontents, anti-vaxxers and their irresponsible peddling of baseless beliefs pose real risks to public health. Even if a population is largely inoculated against a virus, non-vaccinators act as incubators for the evolution of vaccine-resistant virus strands that affect the entire population.

Unfortunately, anti-vaxxers seem to possess a natural immunization against science, a disregard that is increasingly shared by the American body politic alike. However, truly concerning is the fact that now they have a legal precedence on their side as well. Last month the European Union’s highest court ruled that its lower courts may allow civil suits to go forward against vaccine manufacturers, even in the absence of any scientific evidence that their product is responsible for any illness whatsoever. Citing the vast imbalance of power between large and powerful pharmaceutical companies and the average consumer, the court ruled that consumers should be able to bring suit “excluding any method of proof.”

The verdict comes at an extraordinarily delicate moment, as the world’s vaccination system is under unprecedented pressures. Mostly preventable epidemics are depleting already low vaccine supplies, and manufacturers are unwilling to replenish them given the razor-thin profit margins and threats of physical violence against those who attempt to distribute vaccines in certain parts of the world.

What’s truly disturbing is the fact that some of the most prominent anti-vaxxers had pledged their life to science before going off the rails. Just look at Robert F. Kennedy, Jr: after having fought to protect the environment for years, the contrast couldn’t be starker when one examines the incredible damage his activities have done to the global vaccination effort.

Kennedy made a splash when he first joined the fray in 2005, which saw the publication of an article he had authored on the supposed dangers of vaccinations. The article was so riddled with falsehoods that the website that published it eventually issued a full retraction. Undeterred by such minor considerations as the truth, Kennedy has come to back a crackpot conspiracy theory involving the completely false notion that a preservative in flu vaccines causes autism, despite the fact that the connection between autism and the preservative in question has never been proven, and that the preservative in question was removed from children’s vaccines over a decade ago.

Kennedy has since advanced his commitment to cause over science, moving from the anti-vaccination wading pool, subsequently diving in to the waters of the equally unproven link between pesticides and cancer. He is now spearheading a multi-district litigation (MDL) against Monsanto, alleging that glyphosate, known popularly as the herbicide RoundUp, has caused cancer in scores of individuals over the years. This accusation is based on a single study conducted by the International Agency for the Research on Cancer that has since been disproven by comprehensive studies from major international regulatory bodies, such as the European Chemicals Agency, the European Food Safety Authority, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, who all concluded glyphosate to be safe.

However, not to be outdone by these findings, Kennedy is set to undermine the legal system itself to get his way. In a stunning display of disregard for the pillars of arbitration, multiple attorneys in the MDL against Monsanto are self-organizing to “bypass an otherwise complicated MDL process” by forming mini-MDLs. By doing so, the neutral decision-maker in the MDL panel is being effectively sidestepped. To add insult to injury, he boasts to be “bringing the science” to the crusade against glyphosate – a statement which is beyond ridiculous considering Kennedy’s track record of a stunning aversion to anything resembling scientific facts.

Not only do people like Mr. Kennedy undermine the progressive movement, but their stubborn resentment towards scientific studies is precisely the type of attitude that Tom Nichols wrote about in his seminal “The Death of Expertise”. As a result of media saturation, coupled with “a childish rejection of authority in all its forms”, some of our fellow citizens are now convinced that any claim to authoritative knowledge may be disputed. In the immortal words of the Dude from The Big Lebowski: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

But the real-life effects of science denialism are not a matter of opinion, but of life and death. At a time when the Trump administration has all but made the crusade against truth official policy, integrity and respect for science are more pivotal to the healthy functioning of society than ever. No matter the cause, tolerating those who have a flagrant disregard for truth is not only a danger to our well-being, but a poison to our values.

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