The Anti-Vaxxer: A Cautionary Tale for the Digital Age

About two weeks ago, movie star Jim Carrey, apparently in a libertarian lather over California Governor Brown’s signing California’s new law mandating vaccinations for nearly all children, sent out an indignant tweet accompanied by a photograph of a young boy with autism — a photo he used without permission.  I realize that not everyone understands the right of publicity as kind of  intellectual property, but I would think celebrities ought to be familiar with the concept. Regardless, Carrey did apologize for his misappropriation of this child’s picture, though not for his irresponsible declaration about vaccines.  And this particular example is, at least to this curmudgeon, the digital age in spades.  I don’t mind that celebrities like Carrey have more Twitter followers than celebrity scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson; I mind that people can’t tell the difference.

The first measles vaccinations were made available in the U.S. in 1963, which means that my generation was the first to be nearly 100% immunized against the disease.  As such, it is startling to realize that people from this same vanguard generation grew up to reject vaccinations for their own children in numbers sufficient enough  to incubate a new outbreak of a once-dead disease. Based on my own observations, this particular folly begins with social attitudes and economic forces that influenced us Gen-Xers as young adults, which then collided with the Internet to turn a minority attitude into a legitimate health hazard.

This blog is largely predicated on the thesis that information isn’t always information, that by expanding the populist idea that “everyone gets a voice” through technology, we have to accept the unfortunate side-effect that we cannot help but legitimize, brand, consolidate, and even monetize proposals so flawed that they can actually reintroduce a plague to the modern world. But as I say, I think the seeds that grew into the fully-formed anti-vaxxer were planted before we all got online. I also believe this is a middle-class or privileged-class phenomenon, so generalizations that follow apply accordingly.

For starters, we GenXers generally grew up to believe that our parents didn’t really know what the they were doing.  The Boomers were the first generation to divorce and remarry in large numbers, so straight away, their wisdom on relationships was questionable, especially the way those relationships affected us as kids. If I may presume to generalize, it seems that many of us saw our Boomer parents as either intellectually dismissible or emotionally dishonest.  And so we Xers entered parenthood distrustful of conventional wisdom, determined to lavish extraordinary attention on our children in ways that our parents had not.

And the market was there to meet us in this ambition with a frenzy of new theories, new knowledge, new products, and new services, the volume of which validated the underlying assumption that we were right about what previous generations didn’t know. There were some well-founded innovations, like the proper way to lay an infant down in order to avoid crib death or the need to use bike helmets and car seats; but there were plenty of unproven ideas, like training a fetus in-utero how to one day master calculus by playing just the right amount of Bach in the general direction of the mother’s pregnant tummy.  Either way, there was a lot of “new” information out there, and a lot of it contradicted the body of knowledge previously referred to as common sense.

Unfortunately, information overload can create an anxiety that one might miss the opportunity to make a wiser choice about something.  And although being a new parent is a special kind of madness under any conditions, our particular anxiety about making “wise” choices for our kids was, I believe, symptomatic of a larger, economic apprehension.  Whether we articulated it just this way or not, I think we instinctively wanted to make our kids competitive in the market, meaning intellectually competitive, but in an atmosphere in which we trusted very few of the foundations upon which we ourselves had been raised.  As such, I have to say something truly unkind now about many parents I have known—that one aspect of the narcissism within the privileged classes that produce anti-vaxxers is a sensibility which imagines the “perfect” child, most especially a child who does not have any kind of learning disability.

Thus, certain parents who had the financial freedom to indulge in the aforementioned deluge of contemporary wisdom on childcare were uniquely susceptible to the rumors that began to percolate in the early 1990s associating vaccines with autism.  Of course, the anti-vaxxer fallacy is a classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc—confusing coincidence with causality—for instance that symptoms of autism tend to present at the same time children are given certain inoculations.  Add to this the fact that autism spectrum disorders in general had only begun to be more acutely recognized and studied among the millennial generation of children, and the number of cases can only go up in contrast to previous generations for whom no such studies existed.

Still, my wife and I certainly did ask our pediatrician in those days about the dangers of vaccines, and he responded by describing most emphatically the symptoms of mumps, pertussis, measles, etc. that often precede an early and entirely preventable death. We never openly doubted the decision again, but I won’t lie — being a first-time parent is plain terrifying. My first kid was a preemie and small and used to spike terrible fevers with some of his vaccinations, and it was all scary. But then I began to realize that whatever paranoia I might subject myself to regarding these shots was nothing compared to the incalculable dangers the world had in store for him as he became increasingly independent, that of all the leaps of faith I would eventually take as a father, trusting this doctor’s 30+ years of experience was hardly a real test. We vaccinated, as did most other families, and we rarely gave much thought to the few holdouts whose paranoia, religion, or neo-hippie ideology firmly rejected inoculation.  You’d encounter one from time to time, either doe-eyed and daft or militant and rude, insisting that vaccines were a grand conspiracy; but these individuals seemed scattered and isolated, more likely to cause localized harm than to incubate a widespread health crisis. Then, we got on the Internet …

Do a Google search with the term “Should I vaccinate?,” and the results are very mixed. Do the same search using Bing, and the top results are a little more skewed toward advocating vaccination, but still mixed.  When I did this search during the measles outbreak earlier this year, the top six articles were all suggesting or insisting that vaccinations are to be avoided.  It stands to reason that when stories are “trending,” there will be more searches on related subjects; but because the search algorithms usually favor popularity with regard to prioritizing results, the apparent consensus on a given issue can have a profound effect on the individual doing the searching.  And because the default is pro-vaccination, it makes sense that more people — even those who will ultimately vaccinate — are going to review articles and sites providing them with rationales against vaccination. As a result, we see a situation in which people are doing exactly what they should do — use the Internet to educate themselves — but are inadvertently legitimizing a flawed proposal that, although it is a minority view, is still popular enough to foster a crisis.

Education is no antidote. To the contrary, healthy skepticism is a cornerstone of education; it is right to seek information that may not jibe with prevailing wisdom. Hell, this blog critiques the prevailing wisdom that Web 2.0 is exclusively a boon to democracy and economic prosperity.  We all have our biases and we look for information to support those biases.  And I’ve read some anti-vaxxer positions on the Internet; they’re generally not hysterical and screaming like Jim Carrey’s dumb tweet; they’re often thoughtful, well-argued, and frequently cite studies and research to support their positions. If I were a new father today reading all that, I would have doubts. As I say, I’ve been there. But there is still the problem that the principles of immunization are proven science despite the fact that the “democratization of information” has, at times, moved the subject to the realm of “debate.”  And because the architecture of the Web tends to reward quantity (i.e. traffic) regardless of quality, this can entrench even the most disastrous beliefs to the extent that the very concept of expertise itself is frequently attacked as “mainstream” or “elitist” or the exclusive purview of “gatekeepers.”

The very real measles outbreak we witnessed in California in the winter of this year is a pretty good example as to how a false idea gains momentum, takes on the veneer of credibility when amplified through mass media, and then manifests in unintended consequences that ought to give rational people pause to consider a fallacy in their hypothesis.  Instead, the evidence of sick children only seemed to entrench the anti-vaxxer view, not unlike the way we saw the murders at Sandy Hook galvanize the community of gun rights activists to shore up ideological defenses rather than participate in the conversation about gun violence in this country. As a result, for instance, democratic lawmakers in my state passed a reactionary and useless gun-control law that only serves to fuel the militancy of the opposing crowd. And we see this with issue after issue in what appears to be our increasingly hostile and self-righteous politics across the ideological and economic spectrum.

The word community is thematic among the inventors and promoters of social media, but there is no question that the notion of community is also often subverted by the democratization of information through these platforms.  There is an extent to which the “everyone gets a voice” ethos nurtures the individual sense of civil liberty to the extent that it becomes entirely blind to a sense of community. In fact, I can’t help but find it particularly interesting that the anti-vaxxer in particular will assert his individual right to make the vaccine choice for his child while ignoring the communal responsibility implicit in the science of immunization.  Because in this context, I think about the men who first wrote our civil liberties into law and remember that every one of them witnessed firsthand the ravages and untimely deaths caused by small pox, measles, mumps, rubella, and a host of other maladies.  Thus, I wonder if the Founding Fathers could visit us today, learn that our scientists had eradicated these terrible diseases, but that certain citizens viewed their participation in this immunology as an infringement on liberty, they might not request a copy of the Constitution and a red pen.

© 2015 – 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • The problem, David…is that actual science is too hard. Opinion is so, so much easier. Should one vaccinate one’s children? I can’t even remember hearing a dumber question than that. The answer is emphatically “Yes!”…But that answer contains within it a whole bunch of unstated assumptions…starting with, “Does the FDA make sure that the pharmaceutical companies are providing safe vaccines?”

    Because if the government is going to mandate vaccination, they must also ensure the quality of that which they have mandated…and as we have seen in the last few years, many pharmaceutical companies are not really in the business of manufacture any longer but instead are in the import business…because it’s more profitable, naturally.

    So if you are willing to trust those companies and that government to oversee the things you put in your body, I have a real problem…because as we have ALSO seen, there is hardly any budget anymore for oversight, and very little real unbiased science coming from Washington. It all has been smeared with the brush of political agendas.

    The real problem is one of accountability. If there are mistakes, they are more often covered up…instead of having the guilty taken out and shot…or injected with their own vaccines. If we punished the people who abuse the body politic, they would soon have to stop that behavior.

    • David Newhoff

      Concerns about whether or not the FDA has the resources or appropriate mandate to do its job properly are valid. I am likewise bothered by the apparent breakdown in systems like FDA, EPA, and particularly the political right’s assault on these agencies. And, while I’m no fan of pharmaceutical companies, my experience working with them suggests that their “avarice” takes different forms than a willingness to invite the potential disaster of a tainted vaccine supply. Moreover, if vaccines were tainted due to importation — like Chinese lead-filled toys or poisonous drywall — why would the adulterations in the medicines be consistent and only cause autism spectrum disorders in a handful of children? And, as stated, the the initial rumors correlating vaccines and autism began at least 20 years ago. Naturally, I agree with the need for accountability and the responsibility of public agencies to protect public interest. The point of this post is, of course, less about vaccines per se than a look at how one bad idea became so deeply entrenched.

  • You needn’t have gone further than ‘libertatian’ on this. Vaccinations are their bete noire. Mass immunization requires a central authority with well developed infrastructure in order to marshall the resources and undertake the programme. This is why preventable diseases have been mostly eradicated in Western societies and why they have proved much harder to eradicate in countries with poor infrastructure, weak central authorities, and war zones.

    • By and large this is one of the most regulated industries we have. When they break the regulations they get hit heavily with fines and rightly so. Unlike the alternatives who are allowed to make outrageous claims for the snake oil they peddle with impunity.

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