As parents, we like to be informed. It gives us a sense of power and control, and when it comes to our children, we feel we’re better able to make decisions to protect them and keep them safe. Every parent is faced with a critical choice to make for the health of their child – vaccinate or not? We would like to be as informed as possible, when making this decision.
I will admit that shortly before my first kid was born in 2015, I fell for the anti-vaccine baloney. I am not proud of it, but I succumbed to the spastic, fear-mongering narrative pushed by people who reject science in favor of thinking they know better based on completely unfounded personal anecdotes instead of peer-reviewed literature. My ambivalence about vaccinating my child caused quite a rift in my family, of which I am also not proud, but have since rectified, thankfully.
You can’t poll a scientific fact. The speed of light is the speed of light (186,282.4 miles per second) whether 90% of people believe it, 25% believe it or 100% have no opinion. The same is true for the heaviest element, the size of the Earth and the number of cells that make up the average human body (37.2 trillion, in case you’re counting).
And the same is true, too, for the safety and efficacy of vaccines: They’re extraordinarily effective and extraordinarily safe, no matter what the folks in the anti-vaccine fringe have been saying. But in this case, popular opinion makes a difference—potentially a life and death one. That’s because parents who have bought the anti-vax line are far less likely to vaccinate their children, putting those kids at risk as well as anyone in the community who can’t be vaccinated due to age or a medical problem.
-Jeffrey Kluger, TIME Magazine – July 7, 2015
Why does this happen? Why do large swaths of people suddenly turn against decades-old accepted scientific fact?
Fear and Belief.
Uncertainty – not knowing – is often much more powerful than the convenience of a falsehood so people grab whatever is nearest to assuage their fears and make them “feel” more comfortable simply because they have apparent certainty. The problem is that comfortable is not a feeling, but a belief, and it comes from a completely different part of the brain.
Beliefs, like ideas, thoughts, impressions, interpretations, appearances, and so forth, all come from the frontal lobe. Those are also things we can change. Feelings, however, come from the limbic system and cannot be altered, only attenuated. Saying you “feel” something that is not a feeling makes a difference because it inhibits your ability to change it or receive new information to the contrary. This is why people who cannot separate who they are from what they think often get defensive in conversations about ideas; they are fused with their own and an attack on the idea is tantamount to an attack on the person. This triggers a fight-or-flight reaction that leads to defensiveness and emotionality.
That belief of being certain in something, even if it is false, supplants the fear and keeps a person safe in his or her own self-made beliefs. Letting go of that is quite frightening because the unknown is spooky. It is scary as hell not to know something, especially if a person has never practiced not knowing and still being okay. That person will bail out of the discomfort as soon as an opportunity presents itself, even if that opportunity makes no…wait for it…sense. For people who don’t understand autism (author’s note: no one does, we only have theories), a false belief in “vaccines case autism” gives a sense of certainty that alleviates the fear associated with simply not knowing. There’s a lot I don’t know, but I am not about to go making up false narratives and then promoting them as fact just to (falsely) alleviate my own discomfort.
This happens all over. No one knows for sure how the earth was formed but we have some theories; one is creationism, another is the Big Bang. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, neither theory has “proof,” and the people most secure in their beliefs, whatever they are, will readily admit that nothing is ever known for sure. Even church pastors and Neil DeGrasse Tyson will acquiesce to not being omniscient simply because they are humble and wise enough to recognize their limits as humans.
Theories and Science.
But the origins of the universe are not endangering entire neighborhoods and risking children’s lives like the anti-vaccine coalition is. I don’t intend to browbeat you about outbreaks of diseases long since vanquished simply due to willful ignorance. We already know that. What I do want to tell you is: fear is okay, just make sure it is rational. Decisions made out of emotion frequently lead to regret, and had I decided out of emotion not to vaccinate my child, I may have regretted it deeply had he died from measles eight months later or been stricken with meningitis after a bout of mumps. I still fear for my children, but I don’t make life-altering decisions while in that place of fear.
[Author’s other note]: if you follow social media (or any media for that matter) you are exposing yourself to fear-based information designed to get you to react. It is an ages-old concept well known in advertising circles that suggests if the message can get you to act on emotion instead of reason, you’ll usually buy the product without thinking (“What? My soap doesn’t clean as well? I’m switching brands!” or “The world is going down in flames, I need to invest in gold!”)
High-profile figures in government such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. who make galactically obtuse statements about how “…we ought to be reading the science and we ought to be debating the science” only stoke the irrational paranoia. Note to Robert: the science is ironclad and while I just got done saying that nothing is for certain, we don’t debate accepted facts when doing so potentially exposes our children to irreparable harm (“Hey kids, gravity is a myth perpetuated by government to keep you enslaved; let me show you how to fly by tossing you off the roof!”).
I know that some people will have stuffed their minds full of noxious baloney from conspiracy theorists posing as legitimately knowledgeable on the subject but let me set the record straight: there’s no conspiracy. Vaccines earn pennies for big pharma – about two to three percent of the entire industry – and some global conspiracy to push them builds almost zero wealth for anyone when considering the amount of coordination necessary. With any conspiracy you have to seek the motivation first, then uncover the conspiracy. And in the world of vaccinations, there’s just no motivation. Unless, of course, you want to talk about that silly little concern over public health and what not. How dare they fleece us into letting our children live through toddlerhood?!?
But seriously, if you want a real conspiracy in pharmaceuticals, look for the drugs that cost a gazillion bucks to manufacture and sell. Spoiler alert: it’s not the vaccines, but it’s also untrue, several times over.
The choice is yours.
For all you parents out there, please take a lesson from my experience and protect yourselves against making decisions out of fight-or-flight and just ask yourself, “What makes sense here?” You have two choices, vaccinate the right way, which is to say the way the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, or you don’t do it at all. Any pediatrician worth their salt will tell you that doing vaccinations halfway is worthless because the body simply does not respond well enough to build antibodies that lead to immunity.
So you can make fear-based decisions out of absolutely nonexistent so-called “data” from pseudo-scientists on Pinterest and Facebook that put your kids (and mine) at risk of misery up to and including death, or you can operate out of sound logic and good science. I finally came to my senses – quite literally, by using my frontal lobe – and chose the latter. I urge you to do the same because people usurping generations of substantive, unequivocal evidence for the sake of their own emotional intolerance does not make for a healthy community, state, or nation.
Thanks to my reasonable friends for talking me off the ledge two and a half years ago. You know who you are.