Anti-vaxxers are not the enemy: Science, politics and the crisis of authority

My kids got their shots! But climate denial is far more dangerous, and a larger cultural crisis looms behind both

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 7, 2015 5:30PM (EST)

Glenn Beck, Rand Paul, Jenny McCarthy            (Reuters/AP/Chris Keane/Ed Reinke/Fred Prouser/Photo montage by Salon)
Glenn Beck, Rand Paul, Jenny McCarthy (Reuters/AP/Chris Keane/Ed Reinke/Fred Prouser/Photo montage by Salon)

One of the central characteristics of our age – which those of us with fancy educations often call the postmodern era, although even that term is starting to feel old – is a widespread crisis of authority. It isn’t quite true that nobody believes in anything and nobody trusts the experts, as in the rootless world of moral relativism feared by conservatives. It’s more that everybody gets to pick their own beliefs, their own experts and their own evidence. This is something like the crisis of meaning that Nietzsche foresaw when he pronounced that God was dead, but he was only half right. The old God whose judgment everyone in the Western world feared is gone, all right – but he has divided and multiplied, like cancer cells, into an endless pantheon of new gods.

It’s entirely expected for somebody with my media platform to rage against right-wing kooks on television -- or right-wing kooks in elected office, for that matter -- who claim that climate change is a hoax or that vaccinating children against preventable diseases is dangerous and unnecessary. I agree that those people are deluded or misinformed, and in the case of climate denial they are serving as the agents of larger and darker powers. But those issues are not the same, no matter how closely they have become linked in the liberal and conservative hive-minds. For one thing, anti-vaccine sentiment is found across the political spectrum, although it's most common among the libertarian-minded right and the anarchist-minded or New Agey quadrants of the left. Attempts to cram the vaccine issue into the binary discourse of partisan politics or the "culture war" are intellectually lazy, and misrepresent its true significance. Furthermore, the dangers of climate denialism are many orders of magnitude worse than the dangers of anti-vaxxer hysteria, which feels like one of those sideshow issues in American politics that’s really about something else.

What links the anti-vaccine movement to climate denialism -- and to many other things that may appear unrelated -- is that both are manifestations of the crisis of authority. As represented by people like Glenn Beck and Rand Paul, they also display that crisis in its relatively new and intriguingly crazy right-wing costume. Know-nothing congressmen and vapid TV hosts stand courageously against the pointy-headed Ph.D. elite: They are not scientists, they assure us (scoring points with their core audience), but they know what they believe! Meanwhile, bicoastal liberals are granted an irresistible opportunity to proclaim their own enlightenment and decry the stupidity of others. As gratifying as it may be to congratulate ourselves for composting our coffee grounds and watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s show and believing in Science, it’s missing the point.

Indeed, it’s not entirely clear that we “believe in science,” or that we should. Many of us who vaccinate our kids and understand that climate change is an urgent global problem feel less convinced by scientific assurances that genetically modified organisms and pesticide-laced produce are harmless. Hey, thalidomide and DDT were safe too! You don’t have to dispute the scientific principles behind vaccination to feel uneasy about the giant pharmaceutical corporations, with their long and ugly histories of avarice and falsehood, who actually manufacture and sell vaccines. Those who seek to undermine mainstream science on climate change or vaccination or evolution or whatever else may be wrong on the merits (according to you and me and almost every actual scientist), but when it comes to the validity of science as a social institution, they have a point and we all know it.

Science, properly speaking, does not “believe” in itself. Any ethical scientist will tell you that the history of science is a history of doubt and mistakes and accidental discoveries. What is demanded here is not faith in people with white coats and prestigious degrees, who are just as likely to be evil and corrupt as anyone else, but critical thinking (which, by the way, is at the core of the scientific method). I specifically mean the ability to follow the threads of ideas back to their sources, and the ability to ask who benefits and who loses when a certain idea wins out. That’s a skill that can be learned by anyone, and one that is effectively suppressed in our current educational economy. It’s also the only possible way out of the American impasse around science, and the feedback loop created by the crisis of authority.

Let me try to forestall a few of the angry comments: I am not covertly agreeing with anti-vaxxers, I don’t want to give up my smartphone or undo the elimination of smallpox, and I don’t assert, after the style of 1970s French philosophy, that there is no such thing as objective reality and that it’s all a game of language and ideology. Still, the crisis of authority is a cultural phenomenon, meaning that it really is about language and ideology more than verifiable facts. To insist that “our side” has access to true facts and legitimate authority, while the other side relies on quacks and charlatans, is not much different from saying that our God is great and yours is a filthy donkey. We may be correct (in either instance), but the case is inherently unprovable in any terms the other side is ever likely to accept.

The crisis of authority is by no means limited to anti-vaccination loons and climate deniers, and is not exclusively found on the right. For the past half-century and more it has largely been the left that has challenged social, cultural and political orthodoxy on white supremacy, the Vietnam War, nuclear power, the oppression of women and LGBT people and the destruction of the environment for profit, among many other things. Until recently, American conservatives saw themselves first and foremost as defenders of authority and moral order, buttresses around a fortress of shared values that was buffeted by a corrosive tide. That impulse still exists, as with the recent rush to embrace “American Sniper” and the petulant NYPD protest, but at this point it’s mostly nostalgia. The fortress has been swamped, the moral order is in ruins and the shared values have been scattered like driftwood. All that is solid melts into air, and even the right has become relativistic: the anti-establishment strain of radical and conspiratorial thought that was once found only on the discredited John Birch fringe has become the conservative mainstream.

No doubt the crisis of authority is a double-edged sword, which leads to unpredictable and sometimes dangerous consequences. It fuels widespread distrust of government and political apathy on one hand, and vibrant feminist debate and youth activism on the other. Since we all believe in something, it is likely to make us all uncomfortable at some point.) But it isn’t inherently unhealthy, and to some degree we have to take the good with the bad and do our best to sort through the chaos. Making fun of anti-vaxxers, and conflating their anxiety and bewilderment with the mendacious corporate trolls of climate denial, feels like an attempt to erect a temporary bulwark of centrist-liberal meaning that the crisis of authority cannot undermine. It won't work.

As I've said, this crisis is nothing new. It's the natural and inevitable consequence of an era of deepening disillusionment in which every important social institution -- government, military and police; religion, sports and higher education; big business and the financial sector – has had its turn in the spotlight and been deemed corrupt or compromised. The collective loss of faith in those institutions – the metaphorical death of Nietzsche’s God – made it possible for Edward Snowden to break his vow of silence and flee to Hong Kong with a trove of classified documents, for adults who suffered abuse decades earlier to speak out against revered priests and beloved athletic coaches, and for young people to take to the streets by the thousands to proclaim that black lives matter.

Many people feel deeply uncomfortable with some or all of those things, just as you and I, very likely, are made queasy by Jenny McCarthy’s claims about the dangers of vaccination, or by the spectacle of every single Republican in the United States Senate striking the manly position that climate change is not real or at least not caused by humans. As I said earlier, I don’t think those issues are remotely comparable in terms of severity, and I think the classic question of Cui bono?, or who benefits, yields very different results. McCarthy and her ilk may be hawking advice books or valueless supplements or whatever, but they are not intentionally spreading lies on behalf of oil companies and big polluters, or trading short-term profits for the survival of the planet. Most people making the decision not to vaccinate are mothers who are being demonized for a confusion and mistrust that is in fact widely shared, if in less dramatic form.

For better or worse, at least climate denial and the vaccine debate are in the forefront of public discourse. Numerous forms of authority still lie concealed, or are carefully protected. I don’t know how to evaluate a former German newspaper editor’s recent claim that for years he published stories supplied to him by the CIA, because the story has been entirely ignored by the American media. Then there’s the new government in Greece, the first one in Europe to directly challenge the fiscal austerity regime imposed by global financial institutions. That’s a story of political and economic confrontation that could reshape the history of our century. It has been covered, all right -- in a defensive and patronizing tone transparently designed to reassure readers that the neoliberal order often called the "Washington consensus" is not in danger, and that the silly radicals in Athens will have to grow up and take their medicine like everybody else.

Critical thinking about the nature of authority might induce us to wonder why those stories are invisible, or spun as dry policy questions for readers of the business pages, while so much bandwidth is occupied with making fun of a few vaccine loons. It might cause us to notice that treating people who feel genuine uncertainty about mainstream medicine as if they were low-achieving children only makes the problem worse, and that it’s absurd to assert that questioning the Catholic Church or the National Football League is good, but questioning the name-brand institutions of the scientific world is bad.

Science considered as a method and a process is likely, over the long haul and after a lot of trial and error, to provide us with good answers. Science expressed as a social and historical institution – as a source of authority, in other words -- is another matter entirely, and a far more complicated story than we can tell here. It has extended life and cured disease and improved agriculture, and it has brought us eugenics and the Tuskegee experiments and Hiroshima and Zyklon-B and a whole host of amazing pesticides and herbicides and preservatives and plastics that have permeated every square millimeter of the planet’s surface and the bodies of all its creatures, and whose long-term effects are not known but don’t look that great.

Trust in science, my ass. Questioning science is an urgent and necessary aspect of contemporary critical thinking, and the questions that anti-vaxxers start with are entirely legitimate: What are you putting in my kid’s body? Is it safe, and is it necessary? Who's making money off this, and what do we know about them? And even beyond that: Can I trust that you are telling me the truth? My kids have had all their shots, and I believe that people who refuse vaccination are putting together shreds of old anecdote and flawed evidence and conspiratorial ideology to reach a faulty conclusion. As we have recently discovered, this can have unfortunate public health consequences. But I speak for many parents when I say that I don't begrudge those people their doubts, because I have shared them. That last question, which lies at the heart of both the vaccine issue and the entire crisis of authority -- “Why should I trust you, after all the lies I've been told?” -- still gives me a twinge sometimes.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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