Let’s all be a little kinder to the anti-vaxxers

The anti-vaccine movement has been getting more attention than ever after the recent measles outbreak starting in Disneyland. Most of this attention (at least what I’ve read) has been negative. Actually, negative is putting it lightly. Anti-vaxxers are being burned at the stake for ignoring science and putting other children at risk due to their belief in unproven conspiracies.

And I admit, this was my first reaction too. When I first found out there were people in the world who chose not to vaccinate their children (which I didn’t even know was legal) I too found it idiotic. But now I feel that I, and the rest of the world, have treated these people unfairly.

First let me say that I in no way agree with or condone the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccinations have saved the lives of countless people and no one has ever proven any side-effects that are worse than the diseases they prevent. But I was raised in a home where vaccines were a given, and more importantly I was raised to trust science.

This should be no surprise to anyone, since I grew up to become a scientist. I have been trained to believe the results of experiments, and to trust the honestly of my fellow scientists. But, in the words of the great Dr. Gregory House (yes, I even trust fictional doctors), everybody lies.

Wakefield lied when he said vaccines cause autism. Then again, the FDA apparently covers up fraud in many drug trials. If you’re a concerned parent with no scientific background, what do you do?

You take the option with the smallest chance of risk. In science we call this risk aversion. Now, as a parent in today’s society, what seems like a bigger risk; a disease that was practically wiped out decades ago, or a developmental disorder that seems to be getting diagnosed more everyday? And it’s true that as long as a large enough percent of the population gets vaccinated, the odds of a few unvaccinated people getting sick are very low. We call this herd immunity. But as anti-vaccine beliefs grow in popularity, our herd immunity shrinks and the diseases crop back up again. And since they’ve been gone so long, many people have little or no experience with them and may think them to be more harmless than they are.

Now here I could throw a bunch of websites at you saying that immunity from vaccines is better for you immune system than getting the disease, or tell you how awful the measles are (or any other disease with a vaccine), or how there are no long-term side effects to getting vaccinated. But anyone pro-vaccine will already agree, and anyone anti-vaccine will point me to another website that says the opposite with a grand “well what about this?”

That “what about this” is where I have my biggest sympathy with the anti-vaxxers. Because those “what about this” websites are clever. They take bits of truth and weave them in with their lies. They play into the fears you already had and tell you what you want to hear to make those fears go away. And to the untrained eye they look so credible.

So no, I don’t think all anti-vaxxers are evil, and I don’t think they are all idiots. I think that, for one reason or another, they have lost their faith in big science. I can’t say I completely blame them. But I do want to change that. So if you ever talk to someone who is anti-vaccine (or anti-climate change, or anti-insertyoursciencehere), don’t call them an idiot. When was the last time you found someone calling you an idiot to be a persuasive argument? Don’t spit back the same generic proving it with science argument. Instead, ask them why they don’t believe in it. Find out what it is about science they distrust, and work forward from there. Because until we can inoculate them against whatever is driving their anti-science beliefs, we’ll always just be treating the symptoms.

(see what I did there?)


About Hannah Rosen

I am a PhD candidate at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. I am currently conducting research on color change in squid skin, but my real passion is making science accessible to those outside of the field so that everyone can love it as much as I do! Science is not just for the professionals. It is fun and something that everyone can and should enjoy. Deep down we are all science nerds, you just may not know it yet!

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