This article follows a long-standing Slog tradition of trying to explain different groups to each other. Many such articles are labelled/tagged as "right whispering"...though the following cuts the other way.
Note: I've got a flair for explaining different perspectives, but, alas, not for doing so tersely. Apologies for the length of this. By the end, hopefully you'll have a more visceral understanding of the anti-vaxxers than you can get from other sources, even if you still don't (god, please don't) agree with them.
Look. The Anti-Vaxxers are wrong. But they're not stupid. Smart people get caught in hysterias and mass delusions, too, and, as has been amply reported, the folks caught up in this one are highly-educated, including many Silicon Valley high-tech families who are well-informed and perfectly capable of critical thinking (as well as ridiculously poor judgement).
I've watched the steadfast efforts of perhaps three dozen debunkers over the past few weeks, and nearly all have recited the same tired facts, none of which speak to the crux of the issue. It's pretty disorienting; I agree with these people, yet as they parade across my TV screen, parroting the same talking points, I feel like I'm watching a Daily Show takedown of the Fox News' echo chamber. Since the anti-vaxxers lie far to the left, this backlash surely fades for them into a background wash of institutional ignorance.
The anti-vaxxers know Wakefield's study was discredited. That is not news to them. Enough with Wakefield, already. And, no, these people have not "forgotten" what polio is or why it's bad. Harping on these two points makes me wonder whether pundits and authorities truly want to persuade anti-vaxxers, or if they're simply trying to agitate the rest of us against them.
The other thing anti-vaxxers comprehend is herd immunity. They get it, and would otherwise be inclined to do their part, but not if it requires jeopardizing their kids' health to keep the herd 100% immune to a diseases like measles with mere 0.3% fatality. There are small sacrifices to be made for the greater good, but as stakes rise (or are imagined to rise), it becomes a more complicated equation.
We talk past this. We impatiently swipe away assumptions and we push conclusions which hinge on assumptions of our own. This is the question Sane America is asking anti-vaxxers: "Why would you endanger the children around you when vaccines are perfectly safe?". But, duh, they don't think they're perfectly safe! It's not that they don't care, it's that they find the risk/benefit equation more complicated than you or I do.
And vaccines are not perfectly safe, even with (unfounded) autism claims aside. No authority would ever claim they are (yet public debunkers - fearing backlash wrath if they concede facts which might appear to fuel the wrong side - steer clear of this entire branch of the argument...it's like this). Yes, autism risk, specifically, is pure bullshit, but people certainly do have reactions to vaccines, even serious ones. So, from the get-go, it's not quite obvious where that risk/benefit equation should fall. Reasonable discussion could be had.
No, I'm not a traitor to my side of the debate. I just don't think you can convince people by deliberately talking past their arguments, though that's exactly what we always try to do (usually in the name of "clarity").
And yet more discussion could be had to finally decide the level of compulsion appropriate for the many childhood vaccinations which don't address quite as firm a public health need. Did you know many locales currently suggest over 50 of these things, ladening pediatrics with a confusing thicket of shots both compulsory and non-compulsory and leading healthcare authorities to occasionally go nuclear against parents who refuse even voluntary shots for their immune-compromised children?
It's not quite as simple and clear-cut a matter as one might imagine. While the anti-vaxxers are wrong and dangerous, persuasion can't happen until we at least consider what they're actually saying....which is more intelligent than the ten-year-old sound bites you hear on TV of Jenny McCarthy being a complete ditz.
Now, finally, the autism thing. It's actually not all that hard to understand where they're coming from on that, if you make an effort. Helicopter parenting, where smothered, over-parented children become mommy and daddy's fabulous craft project (what I referred to, in the above link, as a "Narcissist's Creation Kit"), is pandemic wherever vaccine refusal is pandemic. Helicopter parents don't trust institutions, they trust their guts (just as the extreme right - their antithesis - does). And that's where autism risk - which isn't an intellectual concern, but certainly is an emotional one where such public furor has been stirred up - comes in. Mommy trusts her gut, and her gut worries that maybe there's something to this scare, because the scare comes at her from all directions. That's what happens in a hysteria - an alarming answer is blowing in the wind.
Such situations can result in far deadlier outcomes than mere under-vaccination. Hysterias can make crowds crush each other to death for no discernible reason. Crackling exo-neurological wirings are a deep part of human nature, so don't imagine only idiots are effected. Have you ever had a widely repeated rumor - which you intellectually knew to be false - turn your stomach to lead? Can you recall how exquisitely sensitive our collective antennae got circa September 12, 2001 - and how a stream of theories and omens filled that channel, leaving smart people distraught and confused? The intellect can try to soberly discount rumor and anecdote, but the gut cannot. And so we get to the crux: if you keep receiving a series of emotionally-charged stories from your empirical grapevines about autism from vaccines, your intellect may remain skeptical, but your gut will scream "watch out!". And which way would you lean re: your kids' safety? Especially if your entire parenting philosophy revolves around one's defiantly personal (read: socially conformist) choices? You wouldn't take the chance. You wouldn't step on that sidewalk crack, risking that you might break your momma's back.
That's the kernel of it, no more, no less. Vaccines carry a (legitimate!) risk to little Shandra or Kent....and the risk just might be far worse (i.e. autism) than The Man tells us it is. Probably not, but, hey, you've heard stories, and that raises the stakes at least some, no matter how many people scream "nonsense!".
Parents inclined to micromanage their children's development feel supremely confident in their "mix" of intellectual/emotional/spiritual KNOWING. They never doubt for a moment that they're sculpting the most super-well, super-functional kids ever (note: it's exactly these people, now with offspring. Can you now understand why I'm so alarmed and annoyed by them?). Such parents do not eagerly receive feedback on their highly enlightened decisions - especially not from "authorities". So we need to offer far better tailored arguments, and speak to their actual concerns, rather than speaking past them to impatiently demand they stop being such morons, period.
It's the same with how we talk to the Right about climate change*, abortion or tolerance. If we go in assuming they're idiots and talking to them like they're children, we'll continue to polarize the country into Partisanville.
* "Just look at the weather!" we cry during storms or droughts. Then, when climate change deniers do the same during conditions matching their conclusions, we wag our heads at the stupidity of pointing to single data points....
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