I see vaxxing returns to our news feeds. Have you noticed you do not see the term pro-vaxxing? Google ‘pro-vaxxing’, all you see are anti-vaxxing hits. Google ‘anti-vaxxing’, all you see are anti-vaxxing hits. How do you suppose vaxxing and vaxxers became pejorative terms?
Measles outbreaks bring pro-vaxxers into the public square. World Health Organization, apparently an agency mainstream outlets expect us to regard as trustworthy, says anti-vaxxers pose a global threat to our health. Anti-vaxxers made the top-ten list of threats, along with ebola, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and climate change. Every time you see the term anti-vaxxer, you hear the unspoken undertone, “Shame, shame on you, for doing this to your children, and to other people’s children!!”
So let’s start with some equality and balance in our terms, shall we? Let’s refer to pro-vaccination individuals, and anti-vaccination individuals. If that involves too many syllables to pronounce, imagine terms that do not attach an er ending to what you call your opponents. When you refer to 9/11 truthers, we know what side you have taken. Same goes for climate change denier. When you say anti-vaxxer, you communicate up front, “I use this term because I want to place you on the back foot, as I do not consider an actual argument with people like you worthwhile. I only want to talk with you, if you already agree with me.”
So let’s start with some equality and balance in our terms, shall we? Let’s refer to pro-vaccination individuals, and anti-vaccination individuals.
Take a brief look at arguments on both sides. You will guess from my remarks thus far that I have already chosen my side, yet analysis reveals a good deal. You’ll see why proponents on either side cannot resolve this debate on current terms, even if pro-vaccination forces select a more neutral term for their opponents.
Pro-vaccination individuals stress scientific evidence and herd immunity, or social protection. They say scientific trials demonstrate conclusively that immunizations are safe. No evidence indicates a causal link between vaccines, and bad effects for children. For social protection, public health advocates point to vaccinations for scourges like polio, smallpox, and other diseases that saw marked declines during the twentieth century. They do argue a causal link between compulsory vaccinations for every child, and reduced incidence of serious illnesses.
Anti-vaccination individuals stress distrust in government and parental rights. They say scientific evidence is irrelevant where government agencies are incompetent and deceitful, as in Flint, Michigan, or where they conduct medical tests on unwitting subjects, including children, prisoners, adolescents, and vulnerable adults. After you learn how government agencies introduce dangerous chemicals and pathogens into people’s bodies, agencies that never admit their crimes, you have no reason to trust those institutions in the future. Scientific evidence has no weight for arguments of this kind.
Anti-vaccination individuals stress distrust in government and parental rights.
As science and public health support each other in the pro-vaccination argument, so distrust and parental rights strengthen each part of the anti-vaccination argument. No compulsion, certainly not from the same government that actively undermines public health, can persuade parents they ought to comply. Compulsion has the opposite effect. It elicits assertion of parental rights, which in fact supersede governmental compulsion in every case, even if government acts in good faith. Government agencies do not see things that way, but many parents do. That is why they organize to oppose governments in the matter of vaccinations.
Would we learn more if both sides tried to engage each other on similar ground? I doubt it, simply because engagement depends on some degree of respect and trust, which do not exist. Nothing about current debates suggests either side cares to restore these basic elements of human interaction. Pro-vaccination forces regard their opponents as idiots, the opposite of respect. Anti-vaccination forces might live with government compulsion in some respects, but not for safety of their own children. Parents will protect their children from all threats. For many, government agencies pose a more immediate threat than contagious disease.
Let me end with a story. My brother-in-law is severely autistic. He has had a long, terrible life as a result. From many he has received competent, loving care. Yet caregivers at public institutions drugged and raped him. For most of his life, he has been isolated and friendless. He does not recognize his family.
Pro-vaccination forces regard their opponents as idiots, the opposite of respect.
The crucial part of his story lies in early childhood. For the first three years of his life, he developed normally. He learned to talk, smiled, interacted with others, gave no appearance that anything was wrong in his social development. Then suddenly, at age three, about the time vaccinations begin, something went terribly wrong in his brain. Normal development ceased. He became violent, withdrawn, unpredictable, and unable to communicate. No one during the 1950s even understood what autism was. People grouped autistic children with academically challenged or mentally ill persons, or retards and idiots, to use the language of the time.
This pattern – sudden onset of serious symptoms around age three, or shortly after a child receives initial vaccinations – has repeated itself many millions of times over the last half century. Parents compare notes. Child care dominates their days, and forms a primary subject of conversation. The belief that vaccinations might play a role in autism does not represent a momentary internet panic. It is embedded in social beliefs that developed over a long period. Parents do not need scientific evidence to say, “Even if I am wrong, I do not want an outside agency to inject any pathogen, serum with preservatives, or any other chemical into my child. You can show me studies funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health if you like. I still don’t want to take a chance like that.”
The belief that vaccinations might play a role in autism does not represent a momentary internet panic. It is embedded in social beliefs that developed over a long period.
When my parents-in-law talked to others about their little boy in the 1950s, people did not know what to make of their stories. No one knew what autism was. Now we know more about ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder. We do not, however, know what causes it. We can describe it well enough, but we cannot explain onset: why the disorder develops in the first place. Many, including me, would not even call Asperger’s a disorder. That is another conversation. The significant point here is that we cannot explain why some children are autistic, and others not. Neurological and biochemical abnormalities that contribute to the constellation of qualities we call autism remain unexplained.
In light of that, you cannot disparage skeptics of compulsory vaccination. The “we found no evidence” argument carries no logical weight when you cannot explain underlying, foundational patterns or causes, any more than the “we have evidence” argument. All persuasive evidence depends on an underlying theory, a coherent set of explanations for how and why something works the way it does.
You must understand that the earth orbits the sun, before you can explain astronomical phenomena. You must understand how the body’s circulatory system works, and how its immune system works, before you can explain health and disease. You must understand how the brain works, before you can explain mental phenomena, including autism and the autism spectrum. We have nothing close to that understanding, only descriptions of mental effects, and crude ones at that.
All persuasive evidence depends on an underlying theory, a coherent set of explanations for how and why something works the way it does.
So I want to ask pro-vaxxers – I mean pro-vaccination individuals – to treat parents of children on the spectrum with respect. Treat parents of children not on the spectrum with respect. In most locales, anti-vaccination individuals must complete several bureaucratic steps to exempt their children from compulsory vaccinations. They feel defensive from the start, given the social, legal, and procedural hurdles they encounter. They must fend off ridicule, and “How can you…?” questions constantly.
No one seeks public disparagement, but anti-vaccination parents are clearly willing to assert their rights as parents, whatever the personal cost. They should not have to pay any price to assert these rights. No mandate for herd or social immunity, however compelling, overrides their inherent authority. For opponents of public efforts to compel parents to immunize their children, benefit of doubt and ultimate authority lies with parents. It does not rest with public health authorities, medical practitioners, or any other public agency.