Vaccines: Don’t wanna be an American idiot


February 6, 2015

“Information nation of hysteria….”

That’s just one of the great lines from Green Day’s brilliant song about ignorance in America. If you haven’t listened to the song in a while, look it up on YouTube and give it a spin (sorry for the vinyl reference). There is no work of art that better sums up what is happening at this particular moment in the American zeitgeist.

The catalyst for this cultural strum und drang is the recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. The outbreak is suspected to have started with a group of children who did not receive any vaccinations because their parents are anti-vaxxers, who believe that vaccinations can cause anything from mental illness to autism, despite tons of scientific evidence that this is not true.

This group is not, to borrow another couple of words from the song,”redneck America.” In fact, some epidemiologists say that you can find concentrations of anti-vaxxers by drawing a 5-mile radius around any Whole Foods outlet across the United States. Many anti-vaxxers are well-educated, affluent, and probably pro-science on every issue … except this one.

The hysteria, of course, has been amplified by the mainstream media which neglects thoughtful reflection and reporting in favor of a breathless “he said, she said” format, creating in the public sphere a 50-50 “debate” between the illogical and baseless and scientific reason and painstakingly researched studies, as if the two held equal weight. 

Joining the media in ratcheting up the hysteria at this particular cultural moment is a gaggle of wannabe candidates for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party, a group that will say or do anything, anything at all, if they think it will help them gain an inch with their “base” of narrow-minded, racist, bigoted, anti-government supporters. While not all Republicans fall into this category by a long shot, this is the group within the GOP – about 20 per cent – who vote in presidential primaries, and thus elect presidential candidates. So the more ridiculous, bigoted and right-wing a candidate can sound in anything they say is to be seen as an advantage. 

It’s not as if we haven’t seen this phenomenon before – there has always been a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture. My wife, an historian, is fond of pointing to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as one of the first examples of this anti-intellectual bias that runs through America’s cultural lifeline. What is scary about all of these particular modern movements is that they are so shockingly anti-science.

Science has been upsetting “belief-based reality,” as Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer calls it, since the days of Galileo and his battles with the Catholic Church over the heliocentric universe model. But the problem with belief-based realism, as Shermer points out in his book The Believing Brain, is that the belief comes before the reasons for the belief and thus it is very, very difficult to ‘unanchor’ people from their beliefs regardless of how ridiculous or mistaken they are. And so when people are confronted with studies and research papers and experiments that undermine these belief systems they lash out at the one tool that we have that can provide some method to judge the reality of belief-based reality – science itself.

In America this anti-science bias runs through almost every important public issue: climate change, whether gay people are born that way or whether they choose to be gay, the usefulness of vaccinations, and even evolution itself. Often these belief-based realities are anchored in particular religious denominations, and these almost-always conservative religious groups and individuals have gotten pretty sneaky in the ways they use religion to tear down science with the public – claiming that the Constitution gives them the right to believe what they want to believe and that being forced to accept any scientifically proved reality that they don’t like is a crime against their personal right to be, well, American idiots.

 And while it may be tempting to dismiss these folks as irrelevant in the overall scheme of things, nothing could be further from the truth. The real danger is that if these people have their way, that if they succeed in undermining decades, maybe hundreds of years, of scientific advancement, then we all lose as a society. This is not 16th century Italy – this is a world that depends and thrives on the fruits of science: new cures for illnesses, new ways of looking at the universe, trying to undo the damage of 150 years of industrial development to the climate, ensuring we have clean air, water, safe places to live. It is no exaggeration to say that these people are a threat to the very way we live our lives.

It’s more than a joke, more than a catchy song title, more than a nuisance. The anti-science crowd in the United States is one of the main dangers that we face as a society in the 21st century.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

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Tom Regan

Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science Monitor and Boston Globe newspapers, and National Public Radio, in the United States. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.







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