It’s easy to blame anti-vaxxers. But should we? They come from a good place – they want to protect their children. As parents, we make many mistakes – all in the name of love for our children. Some of us are over-protective, some too strict, others too permissive. Most parents try to mold their children in their own image instead of allowing children to make their own choices and pursue their own talents and passions in life. Parental love is often misguided. However, refusing to vaccinate your children may be one of the most dangerous mistakes parents can make.
Many suggested that anti-vaccination movements thrive on conspiracy theories. We find them on the right and on the left extremes of the political spectrum – those on the right mistrust the government, those on the left mistrust pharmaceutical companies – frankly, both have a point, perhaps governments and big pharma should be mistrusted… to a point. However, this does not tell the whole story. After all, scientists who do not work for the government or for big pharma tell us to vaccinate our children. So, why some people choose not to trust the scientific community, which has no pecuniary interest in whether someone does or does not vaccinate their children?
The broader question is why people mistrust science? Isn’t the science our primary source of reliable knowledge – the knowledge that powers everything from smartphones we use to cars we drive? Another question may be, why the same people who mistrust science accept on face value ill-founded theories propounded by charlatans?
There is a deep asymmetry in how knowledge is presented. Before I went to study physics at university, I had a piece of paper pinned on the wall in front of my desk at home with one word handwritten on that paper – “doubt!” As I realized later, self-doubt was the organizing principle of science. Scientists doubt everything – accepted dogmas, themselves and their colleagues. When you present your paper at a science conference, you can’t convince anyone on the strength of your charisma, or on the authority of your position or weight of your prior achievements. Scientists are in the business of searching for truth, whether it is in mathematics, in physics, in nature or in medicine. Doing science is a humbling experience. You learn early on that most of your hypotheses turns out wrong, most of your brilliant ideas lead nowhere. As Socrates noted long ago, the more you know, the more you realize how much more you don’t know. Maybe this is why, the greater the scientists, the more humble they are.
Scientists know only too well that their results, however correct they may seem now, are only correct until another study shows them incorrect. All experimental results are tentative and subject to be corrected or disproved by later experiments. The best theories are only correct until they are replaced by better theories, as Newtonian physics was replaced by Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.
This is why, when researches present their results, they always present them with cautions optimism stressing that more studies are needed to confirm their results. True scientists always sound as a bit unsure of themselves using equivocates such as, “maybe,” “perhaps,” “it seems,” “plausible,” etc.
You can immediately recognize a charlatan spewing pseudo-scientific rubbish by the degree of self-assuredness so uncharacteristic of true scientists. Dilettantes are often wrong but never in doubt. They present their unfounded ideas and untested theories as the absolute truth suppressed from the public by some global conspiracy. Often lacking academic training, they substitute anecdotal evidence for a well designed randomized, double-blind study. They just don’t know any better. Sometimes, when they do have proper credentials, they may be driven by some ulterior motives such as notoriety or greed.
As a result, unsophisticated consumers are left to decide between information that is coming from the lips of bona fide researches always coached in cautious and uncertain terms and “absolute truth,” presented without a shadow of a doubt by charlatans selling some snake oil or another conspiracy theory – not an easy choice.
Should scientist become more assertive, pontificating like politicians who always think they are right? I don’t think so. Self-doubt and humility are cornerstones of scientific research. If the result of rigorous research published in peer-reviewed scientific journals sounds less assuring than untested theories spreading on the Internet, so be it – it’s the price we have to pay to preserve the purity of science.
When it comes to vaccination, no responsible pediatrician will ever say that all vaccines are absolutely safe and have no side effects. This would not be true. There are always risks involved. I know it first hand. When I was a child back in Russia, I was vaccinated against Polio and contracted the disease from the vaccine. I was partially paralyzed for a while but then recovered, thank G‑d.
Nevertheless, we vaccinated all our children. Everything we do in life involves risk. Rational decisions are usually made based on the risk-reward analysis. The risk-reward analysis overwhelmingly supports vaccination. Particularly in the case of measles. The measles vaccine by itself or as part of the MMR vaccine is one of the safest there is.
I don’t blame those naïve parents who think they are protecting their children refusing to vaccinate them – these people are victims of ignorance and disinformation. I do blame those who justify their refusal to vaccinate in the name of religious exemption. Judaism gives no grounds for such a claim. Jewish religious law, Halachah, requires a sick person to go to a competent doctor and rely on his or her expertise and training. Furthermore, we believe that healing comes from G‑d, as it says in the Scriptures, Any Hashem Refo’echo – “I am G‑d who heals you.” G‑d uses doctors and His messengers and medications as His channels for healing.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov stated: “Every parent should have his children vaccinated within the first three months of life. Failure to do so is tantamount to murder. Even if they live far from the city and have to travel during the great winter cold, they should have the child vaccinated before three months.” In modern times, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the absolute majority of the rabbinical authorities encouraged people to vaccinate their children. It is a mitzvah – a religious duty – to seek professional treatment and rely on the professional expertise of bona fide physicians. To claim otherwise is to misrepresent and discredit Judaism, and give fodder to anti-Semites.
Right words of a bona fide scientist.
I think this essay oversimplifies the dilemma faced by people attempting to assign degrees of credibility to differing scientific research. Even when members of the public attempt to validate found research it’s common that they can read only abstracts without investing in subscriptions to the online journals, and it isn’t an easy thing to determine whether a piece of research has been occluded by subsequent findings.
Further, the data we ultimately choose to distrust are not easily identifiable by an arrogant or absolutist manner of delivery any more than the data we choose to trust always delivered with humility and self-doubt. Your suggestion that “the greater the scientists, the more humble they are” belies the complicated range of human personalities in every profession including the sciences. Arrogance can be found in everyone, especially those thrust into
the limelight of “greatness”.
Thank you for your comments and corrections. I don’t disagree with your comments. Any short article necessarily has to oversimplify some issues as there is no room to go into all nuances. I met many scientists in my life and some of them were arrogant indeed. However, as compared to charlatans and politicians, who tend to be arrogant and self-assured, the majority of scientists tend to be humble and err on the side of self-doubt. I tried to highlight general tendencies, each of which no doubt has many exceptions.
I’m quite disheartened by aspects of this post. Your comment: “I don’t blame those naïve parents who think they are protecting their children refusing to vaccinate them – these people are victims of ignorance and disinformation.” Many parents refuse to vaccinate their children because they have not been given satisfactory reasons why certain ingredients are included in the vaccine such as: aborted fetus tissue, mercury (the biggie) and sometimes Monosodium Glutamate which is a known food additive that causes side effects. Dr. Blaylock, a noted neuroscientist advocates that MSG along with the chemical additive ‘Aspartame’ seen in almost all soft drinks can cause brain cells to become overstimulated and burn out; especially in the case of children and the elderly who have a weaker blood brain barrier. He calls this an ‘Excitotoxin’. Mercury has been cited to be used as a preservative but we all know that no good can come from adding mercury to the tender body of a baby or a person who is unwell etc. The difference between the number of required vaccinations at the time of Rabbi Nachman, and now, is undeniably increased. Babies now receive several vaccinations at once; consequently, so many have died from this chemical overload in the last 30 years but you won’t hear about this on mainstream news; it’s bad for business. Some nurses and doctors vaccinate without the parents permission- this is never acceptable. Unfortunately, medical science is no longer based upon the well-being of the individual but on the company balance sheet. I know of several drugs that have been withdrawn from use but are still efficacious (much to the dismay of doctors) yet they are replaced with drugs of a higher cost; the doctors know this but are ‘bought’ by the drug companies. What can we do? Insist on the reasons backed up with correct medical statistics as to why these vaccines are needed and not with phony science about the fact that measles is generally a killer when in the past (before 1989) every child went through childhood diseases such as measles, cowpox, chickenpox, mumps with very few deaths and as some medical doctors have pointed out, it gave children increased immunity against other diseases. Some vaccinations are necessary but vaccinating babies against hepatitis B that is generally only contracted via sexual contact or sexual activity is simply overkill! Parents – question everything- this could save your children!