I just went to The Atlantic, and saw vaccination stories everywhere: a measles story, a divided families story, a standard anti-vaccination story. That replicates what you see in your news feeds: constant reporting on measles, no need to state the subtext anywhere, because anti-vaxxers are to blame.
Well let’s adopt the lingo then, and call mainstream advocates pro-vaxxers. I should note, however, that ‘pro-vaxxer’ and ‘anti-vaxxer’, derogatory as they may sound, stand in for larger meanings. Pro-vaxxers favor one hundred percent compliance with a vaccination program. Anti-vaxxers want to be left alone: no required vaccination, no badgering if they opt out. Both terms contain ‘vaxxer’, but they are political terms, not medical ones.
Pro-vaxxers claim science is on their side. Of course, here in the West, science is indefeasible. Therefore, all sides in any dispute try to get science in their corner. Science and politics don’t work that way, though. Science is just a method of inquiry. It never guarantees certain conclusions, once and for all. It only suggests good questions. Politics has virtually nothing to do with scientific methods of inquiry. It rests on qualities like loyalty and trust. Methods of scientific inquiry have no bearing on political questions.
We have seen this disjunction between political disputes and scientific inquiry in the matter of climate patterns. You are an advocate, or you are a denier: the names say it all. Science does not deal with advocacy or denial. It does not even deal in truth. It is merely a method to formulate and test questions. Its process of inquiry never ends. Science has no settled questions.
Let’s take the famous Copernican revolution, which set up the equally famous battle between the Church and Galileo. In the first event, Copernicus accounted for astronomical observations better than his predecessors. In the second event, church officials forced a scientist to recant, because his ideas threatened their power. One illustrates methods of inquiry, the other illustrates how people settle political disputes.
I know I’m being a little too simple here, but not by much. Someone might object, “But Copernicus was right – he had the truth, and he settled the question. Doesn’t science seek the truth?” To which I reply, any argument that places the article ‘the’ before ‘truth’ is mistaken out of the gate. “The only truth I know is you,” Paul Simon wrote. It sounds like adolescent sentimentality to me, actually hogwash if you want to be unkind about it. What does that mean? Similarly, what do you want to say when you argue that science seeks the truth?
Not even God talks that way. If you want the truth, look up in the sky on a clear night from a mountaintop, and tell me how many stars you see. The question has an answer. Who would want to count, and what difference does it make? Science seeks interesting questions, not trivial ones. Interesting questions usually lead to interesting answers, and to better questions.
Let’s take the truth about why we see the sun rise every morning. Our ancestors did not know why – they postulated a sky-born horse and chariot pulled the bright ball above the horizon. Powerful horse. Or perhaps the sun god said, “Rise,” and so it happened. Same with the tides.
Now we’ve seen our earth from space, floating in a vast emptiness. Our solar system appears to behave like electrons that orbit the nucleus of an atom. Is our solar system just one atom in the universe? Are we a blue electron, with a unique charge because the planet has a magnetic field and so much water? Why is our planet’s orbit around the sun elliptical, not circular.
When you ask questions like that, you begin to see why science does not look for the truth. We have an improved explanation for why the sun appears to rise in the morning, and set in the evening. We don’t even know what the sun is. We only know that it’s hot and bright, and that it generates a lot of energy. We can only guess what kind of reaction, or series of reactions, generates that much light and heat.
I could say that’s the essence of science – good guesses – but it does depend on more than that. It requires imagination and careful observation as well. If you bring science into the public arena, however, it has nothing to say. You cannot rely on scientific inquiry to reach conclusions about political questions. Scientists cannot settle political disputes.
Debate about vaccinations – more specifically, about whether the state can or ought to require parents to vaccinate their children – is a political question. Resolution of this question does not depend on anything science can tell us. You might say I am mistakenly absolutist, that my unwillingness to bend on this matter merely reflects an overly narrow view of the state. If I were to broaden my view of what communities can require of their members, I would readily admit this requirement among others.
I have not canvassed anti-vaxxers, to discern the roots of their beliefs or the reasons they would give to justify their stand. I imagine Orthodox Jews in New York City and conservative Christians in another part of the country might not sound so different. I expect too that non-religious reasons exist. I would say no one should have to give a reason. We demand a justification only because we require the vaccination. Live and let live means no mother or father must give an explanation.
Of course, disparagement is the rule, no matter what the explanation. They all go on Facebook, and we know what kind of information you find there. To hear Mayor de Blasio tell the story, law-abiding Jews crowd the temple, Torah open in one hand and a laptop in the other, looking up all the fake science at the anti-vaxxer sites on Facebook. The mayor wants to fine every one of them. If that doesn’t do it, maybe we’ll imprison you for exercising your religious freedom. “We have a measles scare going on here. You won’t bring measles into my city.”
If you want freedom from government, don’t attract its notice. The Amish also resist forced vaccination, but they live out in the country somewhere, so we don’t fine them. In New York City, if you sell untaxed cigarettes on the sidewalk, police will strangle you to death. We take our laws and safety of our residents very seriously here.
Freedom to raise your children according to your own beliefs is a human rights issue. No matter what you think about vaccinations – their safety or their effectiveness – this principle of freedom urges support for groups or individuals that resist requirements to vaccinate, whether their reasons are religious or otherwise. No one should have to give any reason, supply a note from a doctor, or fulfill any other bureaucratic stipulation to exempt their children.
You have to wonder why we see almost daily reports of some new measles outbreak. You never see a breakdown of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated victims of the disease. You also do not see explanations for why vaccinated victims might have contracted the illness, even though they were supposed to be immune. If no vaccinated individuals have come down with measles, then why the scare?
To put the scare question another way, if unvaccinated individuals – now designated as public enemies – increase the likelihood that vaccinated individuals will contract a specific illness, what does that suggest about the vaccination’s effectiveness? If a vaccination is effective, it should not require herd immunity for its effectiveness. If a measles vaccination, for example, is effective, people who receive the vaccination are immune, people who do not receive it, are not. Where is the scare in that breakdown?
To sum up, if a vaccination is effective, public health does not require herd immunity to protect children who receive the vaccination. Only unvaccinated children are vulnerable. We require herd immunity if we aim to eradicate the disease.
One objection might be that we don’t want people getting sick, period. Unnecessary sickness costs everyone, and our health clinics are already overburdened. Therefore you can claim public health considerations make this question everyone’s business. Many would respond we have freedom to select what matters we make everyone’s business. If we select correctly, the number of matters in this category would be zero.
Let’s get to the processes that underly these political questions. Processes at issue here depend on competence and conscientiousness in large organizations. Let’s take Boeing’s infamous 737 sensor problems. No one suggests that individual engineers at that large manufacturer were criminally incompetent, or that they didn’t care about safety. Yet the organization screwed up in a major way. Their product killed hundreds of people needlessly. To this day, Boeing spokesmen insist their design processes are sound, that their product is safe. It is obvious to any observer that the aircraft is not safe.
We know that organizational processes can go wrong. When you bring in the government, you bring in the element of intentional criminality. I will not argue that government intentionally causes autism in children. The point here is to analyze the roots of distrust. Why do people not trust government agencies to deliver safe vaccines?
We do not need scientific studies to know that governments are incompetent, they are cruel, and they are criminal. So are individuals and private organizations, but governments have a lot more money and power. Therefore, governments can do a lot more harm. They can undertake injurious projects, under cover of public safety and welfare, and with power of law, that individuals cannot stop.
If we cannot rely on governments to deliver safe water in Flint, Michigan, in what other ways are governments incompetent, careless, or negligent? If governments break up families, place young people in solitary confinement, and give drugs to young people without their permission, why should we expect these institutions to make an exception for our own son or daughter? If governments engage in criminal activities in one area, why would we expect them to refrain from criminal activities in another?
“Hold on,” you say. “Do you want to suggest that government agencies intentionally inject harmful serum into children, for their own wicked aims?” I say no such thing. I have no evidence that any government agency has ever used a vaccination to harm a child, intentionally or unintentionally.
I do believe that many parents have witnessed normal development in a child until required vaccinations begin, then have witnessed dramatic changes in their child’s behavior, changes no doctor or child specialist can explain. Parents in this situation may mistakenly attribute the onset of autism, or any other condition, to vaccinations, and they may propagate their incorrect conclusion to other people. Those are their mistakes to make. Other parents can give more or less weight to these stories, as they make their own decisions.
No public authority overrides family decisions in matters of health. Not even doctors can force a family to do something it does not want to do. If a family doctor’s authority is limited in this way, how much more so is government’s authority limited? If a family’s doctor says, “This matter of vaccination is your decision to make,” how can a government agency override that?
Who is the reponsible party here? Parents are. They are responsible for the health and welfare of their own children. They are not responsible for the health and welfare of other people’s children. If vaccines serve their purpose, unvaccinated children do not endanger vaccinated children in any case.
You can see a radical point underneath these claims. Trust, and betrayal of trust, are indivisible. That is, if government betrayal, illegality, incompetence, cruelty, corruption, negligence, or experimentation on unknowing subjects occurs in one area, it may as well occur everywhere else. Citizens have no reason to think governments focus their malfeasance in a few select areas. If so, why should they trust governments to act reliably anywhere? Why should they trust governments to deliver safe vaccines to their children?
Let’s spin a simple example, built on the Boeing case. Boeing wanted to beat Airbus to market with its new 737. That meant it needed to get its redesigned aircraft certified as fast as possible. After engineers moved the airplane’s powerful jet engines forward, they had to figure out a way to prevent stalls without redesigning the whole airframe. Fastest way to do that was to develop an automatic trim system, based on sensors. Put simply, Boeing engineers jury rigged the airplane’s controls, and did not tell pilots they had done so. They did not even develop a backup system, should a sensor malfuntion and send erroneous data to the control system.
Now let’s return to vaccines. Vaccines contain weakened, live viruses that provoke a body’s immune response. To keep the vaccine active until injection – that is, to keep the viruses alive – you need refrigeration. Since constant refrigeration and temperature control from manufacture to delivery are hard to maintain, a preservative helps. Preservatives used to protect vaccines contain mercury. Some people worry that mercury might harm their children.
That’s the basic chain of reasoning. Pharmaceutical companies jury rig their vaccines with thimerosal without telling parents they have introduced a potentially dangerous ingredient, mercury, in the serum. So-called scientific studies establish no connection between thimerosal and autism in young children. Until Lion Air, no scientific studies would establish a connection between the 737’s control system and a catastrophic crash. A bad sensor was a low likelihood event.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the preservative in vaccines harms one in two billion children. It’s hard to see that any lab study will pick that up. Yet if someone handed you a pistol with two billion chambers and one bullet in it, would you place it against your child’s head and fire it, because a government public health agency told you to? How about one in four billion, or six? Many people would say, I’ll take those odds, to keep my child from getting sick. Others would say, “No, I won’t do that.”
The correct method of inquiry to determine the cause of a low likelihood event is not a statistical study based on laboratory experiments. The correct method is to analyze what happened in the single occurrence. That is what happened in the case of Lion Air. The analysis pointed to a faulty sensor, and a control system that went haywire. Pilots could not regain control of the plane. Yet a second instance of this fault, months later, had to happen before people in the industry understood they had a problem they had to address.
We have no difficulty identifying symptoms for sudden onset of autism at age three. Parents and professionals are curious about its causes. Just as we do not hesitate to investigate what happened when a passenger jet suddenly plunges into the sea as it climbs to cruising altitude, no one should back off from research about what causes autism, in all its forms. Yet who wants to commit professional suicide in a field that is already land-mined?
I have seen no effort to determine why a child’s brain might go haywire after three years of normal development. When parents guess it might have to do with vaccinations, we’re off to the Facebook races. Yet guesses are exactly what drive scientific inquiry – educated guesses that we call hypotheses. Educated guesses do not have a chance in the political atmosphere that has developed around research into vaccines and autism. A professional who wants to understand possible effects of mercury, or possible causes of autism, would steer clear of these questions. You would suffer ostracism from your colleagues instantly.
Note too that you would not embark on this research with an eye to establishing a link between mercury and autism. Every child’s body chemistry is different: if the preservative does have a harmful effect, it could indeed be unlikely, so unlikely you would never come across it in a conventional study. You would want to take up these questions separately. What effects might mercury have? What causes might autism have? Scientists are good at isolating causes and effects.
Investigation of accidents is a type of forensic science. A plane that plunges into the sea is an odd, inexplicable event, until you take time to explain it. The same goes for sudden onset of autism, which might be called a psychological or developmental accident. We must explain it, independent of bitter debates about the effects of mercury used as a preservative in vaccines.
You cannot use statistical methods to study causes of a low likelihood event. You have to study everything that happened in connection with one instance. Then compare your results for that case, with results for a second one, if you have results for a second case. Comparison revealed similarities between Lion Air near Indonesia, and a second crash five months later in Ethiopia. The pattern of flight before each crash was similar, as was data collected after each crash. We had enough data to determine causes of the first one, but no one acted to ground the aircraft until after the second crash.
We do not generally call judgments based on a sample size of one, science. We want sample sizes larger than that, and controls. Conventionally, we do not see forensic judgments as scientific at all, partly because they so quickly become involved with political or social matters. Thus we dismiss their foundation in science, scientific studies, laboratory experiments, statistical analysis, scientific reasoning, scientific evidence, or scientific publications.
Pro-vaxx advocates ran Andrew Wakefield out of town on a rail, because he published his study about vaccinations with an M.D. after his name. He had about sixteen cases in his sample. If I were to publish a study with similar results, no one would care, because I am not a doctor. If you try to use science to resolve a political question, you will find nothing but trouble on both sides of the issue.
When Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., began to advocate for skeptics – that is, anti-vaxxers – advocates on the other side just ignored him. He had scientific authorities on his side of the divide as well. Out of respect for his father, people have not attacked him the way they attacked Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield came out of nowhere, but he was a threat.
People who attacked Wakefield were not interested in his motivations, methods, or even his specific results. What caught their eye was one sentence in his conclusion, a sentence that practically every researcher includes at the end of an article: this problem requires more research. That’s scientific inquiry: publish preliminary studies in order to ask better questions, and develop better methods. His opponents looked at that sentence and said, “We need some tar and feathers, the hotter the tar the better.”
When you frame the matter of vaccines for children as a set of political questions, you see readily that scientists have nothing relevant to say about them. Scientists do not deal with levels of trust in government. They do not deal with limits on what governments can require. No scientist can study these questions scientifically, nor would we believe what they say about them if they did. You can only resolve questions like these with political methods, namely persuasion, influence, organization, coalition building, and so on. You can see from this brief list that scientific methods do not overlap with political methods.
I mentioned herd immunity above, and touched on the question of whether we need herd immunity in order to extirpate a disease. First, we should make a distinction between deadly diseases like small pox, yellow fever, typhus, and childhood diseases that used to be common among everyone of school age: mumps, measles, and chicken pox. We used to expect we would have each one of nuisance illnesses before we graduated sixth grade. We had four children in our family in the sixties. We had vaccinations for small pox, tuberculosis, and polio. For the standard childhood diseases, we got a few days off from school. We took those illnesses for granted.
Now we deem occurrence of these illnesses unacceptable. Eradicate is the word. Kill the disease at its roots. If we can eradicate an illness, we should do it. If eradication requires forcing unwilling parents into a vaccination program, or holding them to public ridicule if they resist, then so be it. We need to be firm with people who seem not to care sufficiently for their neighbor. We need to be firm in our use of social coercion.
You cannot force people to put something inside their bodies against their will. You can no more do that than force them to kill themselves. The same goes for parents and children. You cannot require parents to do anything of the kind to their children. Their discretion over what medications their children receive is absolute. No authority outside the family can override that choice.