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What anti-vaxxers are actually afraid of (it's not all about autism)
A new study from the University of Pittsburgh details how the anti-vaxx movement has divided and grown.
- University of Pittsburgh researchers identified four major trends fueling the anti-vaxx movement.
- Using comments originating from a Facebook video, they documented 197 profiles as the basis of their paper.
- Every major medical institution agrees that vaccines are safe and effective, but the movement persists thanks to false information spread online.
Andrew Wakefield's infamous 1998 study connecting autism with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine raised skeptical eyebrows shortly after its publication. It took the journal 12 years to retract the paper, however, and by then its contents had been broadly disseminated. In 2006, investigative journalist Brian Deer revealed in the Sunday Times of London that Wakefield had been paid over £400,000 to fabricate his findings.
By then, the denounced "scandal" had been released to the masses. A small but extremely loud faction took Wakefield's bait, however. They're still chewing on the debunked carcass, but interestingly, as a new study points out, the underlying reasons for this movement diverged. It's no longer all about autism.
The study, led by University of Pittsburgh professor Brian A. Primack, focuses on parents reluctant to vaccinate their children. This paper comes in the wake of Facebook's announcement that it will "tackle vaccine misinformation" by removing "vaccine hoaxes" on its platform. Instagram and Amazon are also following along.
The study was inspired after researchers noticed a flood of comments on an informational video about the HPV vaccine from more than 800 people. The team chose a random sample of 197 comments, studying the profiles of each respondent in depth. While also observing political affiliations (56 percent Trump supporters), gender (89 percent female), and geographical location (California and Texas being the most common), the team discovered four main drivers fueling anti-vaxxers.
In the 21 years since Wakefield's discredited study, the reasoning has morphed while the underlying fear remains the same. Uncertainty about the efficacy of vaccines is not new; when Edward Jenner introduced the term "vaccination" into medical nomenclature in the 18th century, skeptics abounded.
Check the timeline: soon after the adoption of vaccines (along with other medical advancements, including the discovery of germ theory), world population hit one billion people for the first time after more than 200,000 years since the genus homo split from apes. Two hundred years later since they came into the picture and today now seven billion human beings walk around. While not an argument in favor of such proliferation, which is proving unsustainable, vaccines effectively cured many issues related to mortality.
An unhealthy modern skepticism, powered by the easy spread of misinformation on social media, is reversing those trends, though. And, because of this, there is an ethical argument to be made for combating this rhetoric online. As Alex Berezow and Ethan Siegel note,
"When we choose to live in a society, there are certain obligations — both moral and legal — to which we are bound. You cannot inflict harm or infringe on the rights and liberties of those around you."
Whether financially incentivized or prone to conspiracy, a growing cadre of anti-vaxxers is moving us backward. Below are the four main reasons why this is the case.
Mistrust of Science and Government Agencies
Given our current political climate it makes sense that many citizens don't trust the government. This sentiment isn't limited to the current administration; long-standing issues of deception and misinformation have created an incredulous public. This has inspired numerous factions that lead with "personal liberty" on every issue, vaccines included.
As Berezow and Seigel write in Scientific American, "freedom" does not entail putting others at risk. That's not liberty; it's stupidity. There are credible reasons why certain children cannot be vaccinated — putting them at risk because of a Facebook meme should not be one of them. It is irresponsible. What follows are situations such as this anti-vaxx mother asking how to protect her three-year-old in the wake of a measles outbreak.
The answer: vaccinate your child.
We should not weigh deception by politicians against the good work being done by the many scientists and researchers tasked with finding cures to diseases. Public health is an ongoing and at times contentious occupation. The field changes as diseases mutate and confound. This is the nature of science: to evolve with the evidence, which at times requires honesty about previous misgivings. Writing off the many well-intentioned researchers because you've confused their work with the rantings of incentivized congressmen and senators leads to reckless decisions.
The origins of the anti-vaccine movement
Fear of safety risks
The basis of this reason is also understandable. I've heard horrible tales of aggressive vaccine scheduling. Research should be conducted. Using Facebook as your go-to source is not the best idea, though. As the researchers write:
"A common feeling in the commentary is the belief that parents are more well-informed than physicians about the dangers of vaccines."
Perhaps a dialogue with your doctor instead? An anecdotal example: I've covered literature debating the dangers of dietary cholesterol. When my doctor wanted to immediately put me on a statin after an uptick in my levels, I debated the decision. While I suffer genetic high cholesterol, I'm not certain a lifetime of statins is the best decision.
Instead of just refusing, however, we engaged in a long conversation, going point by point based on collective research. Granted, not all doctors are willing to engage so openly, which is its own problem. We've decided to monitor my levels over the next half-year and mutually agree how to proceed.
Unfortunately, children cannot debate. This means parents have to better educate themselves on what vaccines are necessary and, if they so choose, which to skip. That burden falls not just onto parents, but physicians as well. As the researchers note, only 5–15 percent of online respondents identify as medical professionals. More doctors need to take advantage of social media to better inform their patients and the public at large.
WATCH: Teen explains why he defied mother's anti-vaccination ideas
Belief in conspiracy theories
While the first two themes require nuance, the second pair does not. Yet these reasons must be taken seriously. If anything, they are more dangerous, as the above can lead to valuable discussions and dialogues. Engaging with conspiracy theorists is predominantly a lesson in futility. But we cannot ignore them.
As previous research has shown, believing in one conspiracy theory makes it likely that you'll fall for others — it's a style of thinking. The second most common topic in the Pittsburgh study was "media, censorship, and 'cover up.'" Distrusting the government on one topic can make you susceptible to any number of insane theories (such as the notion that vaccines cause autism). Then again, two decades is nothing in the larger scope of time: the legacy of the John Birch Society fluoridation scare remains popular today. Cautious skepticism is healthy; contrarianism for the sake of it is not.
Tech's fight against anti-vaccine content prompts free speech debate
Support of alternative disease treatments
Let's stop calling it "alternative" medicine. A 2017 review speculates that the "complementary and alternative" market will generate $196 billion by 2025. That is a gargantuan industry, not a group of alchemists brewing Peruvian elixirs in a cave. A wide range of systems fall within this category, some worth pursing, many not, as there is simply medicine that works and medicine that does not. The alternative to working is inefficacy. Besides, the reason many treatments work is due to placebo.
Your homeopathic concoction is not going to accomplish what a vaccine does, even if they share similar philosophical roots. The fact that the authors note that some anti-vaxxers "also expressed vegan activism" clues you into the mindset: the pursuit of inner purity and natural remedies trumps the weird stuff invented in a laboratory. Problem is that weird stuff has saved millions of lives.
Nature isn't always here for our benefit. In many cases, humans evolved despite nature, not because it was helping out.
It took us 200,000 years to make widely available vaccinations. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that armed with a little knowledge and a contrarian attitude, laptop warriors are battling common sense with such vehemence. Not surprising, but tragic all the same, especially for children suffering the results of such foolishness.
- How anti-vax groups are using Facebook to spread coronavirus disinformation - Big Think ›
- How a 22-year-old fabricated vaccine study affects us today - Big Think ›
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.