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May-June 2004

The anti-vaccination movement: just the latest battle in the “Science Wars”

Clive ThompsonWebsite

Why are so many radicals rejecting science as a right-wing conspiracy—and embracing irrationality instead?

[This article originally appeared in the May-June 2004 issue of This.]

Why are so many progressives rejecting science as a vast right-wing conspiracy? Illustration by Dominic Bugatto.

Why are so many progressives rejecting science as a vast right-wing conspiracy? Illustration by Dominic Bugatto.

If you’ve spent any time in activist circles recently, you’ve probably noticed the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. In a growing number of “alternative” and progressive communities, parents are refusing to immunize their children. Vaccines, critics claim, aren’t necessary for good health—they’re merely another set of drugs foisted on the public by profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies. Not only that, they’re dangerous; they’re the cause of rising autism rates in children.

This anti­-vaccine argument has been cropping up more and more in protest movements. A while ago, I dropped by a leftwing bookstore in my neighbourhood, and found—nestled among the handbills for anti-Bush protests and yoga pamphlets—an invitation to a lecture on “the vaccine myth.” While checking out the discussions on an alternative parenting website at the University of Western Ontario, I read a call-to­ arms claiming that “refusing to vaccinate” your kids is a cool way to […] the evil right-wing health-care empire. This is no longer a fringe view; plenty of parents across Canada are heeding the call, as was evidenced last year when whooping cough broke out in nine kids in London, Ontario. At least one of the kids’ parents had refused vaccination, apparently on the advice of a chiropractor, another popular source of alternative medical advice.

It is a really weird shift. Just a few decades ago, vaccination seemed like the quintessential public good, something that all people—especially progressives—ought to support. Vaccines have been proven to save millions of children, particularly those in poor communities, from death or disability. But now the anti-vaccine argument is becoming gospel even among alternative healers, as Kumanan Wilson, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, recently discovered. He polled 312. students at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine—which emphasizes holistic treatment and natural remedies—to ask how they felt about vaccines. Only 12.8 percent of the students said they would recommend their patients’ children get a full set of vaccinations; 67 percent believed that vaccines are “highly or moderately risky.”

The problem is, this anti-vaccine argument has zero basis in science. It is driven purely by the hunches and superstitions of spooked-out parents and not-terribly-well-informed activists. It’s true that vaccines have side effects; they cause sore arms and allergic reactions in a small percentage of cases. But no one has ever proven a link between vaccination and autism in a peer-reviewed study—the widely accepted standard for scientific proof. With peer review, the idea is that an experiment must be performed rigorously enough to convince other experts in the field—the only people qualified to know. Before that’s happened, you’re not allowed to call your results significant. Autism-vaccine research has not reached that level yet.

In fact, the peer-reviewed research that does exist suggests that there is no connection between autism and vaccination. In Denmark, researchers checked health records for children born from 1971 to 2000. Even though the Danish government had eliminated thimerosal (the preservative that anti-vaccination people believe causes autism) from its vaccines in 1992, rates of autism have continued to increase. Another Danish team checked the records of 500,000 Danes vaccinated for pertussis, and found that autism rates were no different for those who got thimerosal and those who didn’t. Scads of other peer-reviewed studies have found the same thing. It’s true that autism rates are rising, for reasons still mysterious; there is not a scrap of scientific proof showing that vaccines are to blame.

Yet here’s the bigger problem. You can wave this evidence around all you want; you can cite as many lab reports as you can lay your hands on. But it has not convinced the growing number of critics who regard all manner of studies and scientifc reports with gimlet-eyed suspicion. This is the truly scary thing that’s happening: A highly vocal part of contemporary alternative culture is in a fast retreat from science. For them, it is nothing more than a right-wing conspiracy. The new enemies are the guys wearing lab coats.

This cultural clash has a name and an intellectual backdrop. In the academe, they call it the “Science Wars.” Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, postmodern theorists energized the left with a powerful idea: that most of the people in society who claimed to be authorities were really just pushing ideological agendas. At first, the targets of this critique were the obvious ones: right-wing politicians, conservative economists, and family values nuts—people who regularly claim their opinions are objectively true.

But pretty soon science, too, came under the gun. For postmodern and identity politics thinkers, science seemed infused with the same sort of pompous faux-authority as right-wing politicians. All those white guys with Geiger counters, measuring stuff into beakers! It seemed like a transparently ideological ploy to bludgeon people into believing that science was the ultimate dispassionate authority. Sure, scientists might claim they only seek truth—but in the nineties, the very idea of truth became politically suspect. In a postmodern world, everything is subjective; truth is just a grim fight among opposing groups; and science is just another ir1fluence­pedd1ing scam.

As you might imagine, this critique began to annoy real, practicing scientists. Physicists were particularly irritated, since they deal with things like gravity speed and mass, which are kind of hard to shrug off as “subjective” (especially if you’ve ever been in, say, a car crash). In 1994, a physicist named Alan Sokal hatched a plan to humiliate the po-mo critics of science. The influential journal Social Text had announced that it would do an issue themed on the Science Wars. Sokal submitted a mock essay claiming that “physical ‘reality’ no less than social ‘reality’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct” and went on to present a mangled argument suggesting that the laws of physics are just a matter of opinion. The spoof was so over-the top and ham-fìsted that Sokal assumed any half-awake scientist—actually, any “undergraduate physics or math major” he later wrote—ought to have been able to recognize it was a hoax.

But the Social Text editors didn’t. They didn’t even vet the paper with actual physicists; what did those poseurs know anyway? The editors never suspected Sokal’s argument was a parody, because it supported their view that science was just as ideological as politics. So they published it.

When Sokal revealed his hoax, the resulting controversy hit the front page of newspapers across the country and created an enormous cultural rift: Leftwing social theorists huffily claimed The ruse proved nothing; scientists grew snarlier and nastier and more self-righteous. Ten years later, both sides are still seething about it. When I met the editor of Social Text at a literary conference, I made the mistake of trying to joke about the Sokal hoax. The editor fixed me with an icy stare and refused to talk to me for the rest ofthe meeting.

It might seem that this is just an airy debate, but the Science Wars have infected—and reflected—trends in activist thought. A troubling number of progressives have swallowed whole the idea that scientists are as laden with agendas as Ayn Rand or the Fraser Institute. Convinced that science is just politics by anather name, many have gone off in the opposite direction—and embraced irrationality.

It’s particularly noticeable in the world of alternative health and medicine, where the counterculture’s tendency toward crystal-waving has metastasized into full hippie dementia. Walk into a health-food store these days and it’s like stumbling into a medieval fair, crammed full of garlic enemas and magnetic devices for reorienting your energy. This might all seem like charming lunacy, but the alternative-health industry is enjoying a boom bigger than the snake-oil sales of 19th-century America: According to research by AC Nielsen, 48 percent of Canadians have used herbal remedies. Statistics Canada figures indicate that 10 million Canadians have used herbal remedies and similar products—an increase of 25 percent since 1995. And those healing aids aren’t required to scientifically prove their claims. They can just sit on the shelf and soak up the good vibes.

This is not to say one shouldn’t criticize science. Some concerns about it are clearly valid. The dominance of men in science, for example, explains part of why research into women’s health has lagged behind studies of male disorders. The same goes for research into illnesses that affect third world populations.

And as progressives have long noted, there’s the question of corporate influence. Last year I spent a weekend at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a famous lab for marine biology and genetic science. One evening, I attended a lecture by Craig Venter, the founder of Celera, the private company that sequenced the entire human genome. Venter asked the audience if we had any questions. Annalee Newitz, a journalist, posed an interesting one. In the near future, she pointed out, we’re likely to see designer genetic therapies: Doctors will scan your personal genome and design a drug or therapy specific to your condition. But the question is, if Celera were to scan your genome, who would own that information? Would you have the rights to it yourself? Or would Celera get it? If a doctor wanted to make a drug to help you out, would she have to pay Celera for the rights to your genetic information? Would Celera, in effect, control the most basic information about who you are?

Venter coughed uncomfortably. He launched into a rambling discussion of some minutiae of genetic sequencing. Newitz asked the question again, and he dodged it again. Venter either didn’t know the answer, or—more likely—he didn’t want to admit the scarier proposition: that people like him fully intend to make buckets of cash by owning people’s genetic information. Celera is the world’s most advanced genetic-sequenc ing company; it’s also a profìt-making enterprise. If they and their competitors are going to make money, it’ll be by owning a piece of you.

The real danger in the world of science right now isn’t scientists and their political agendas. It’s corporations. In the past few decades, governments worldwide have cut back on their willingness to support pure science—particularly expensive science like genetics. Instead, they’ve been leaving it up to for-profit firms like Celera and bioengineering firms like Monsanto. Whatever positive contributions have been made by for-profit science, there’s one inescapable fact: it exists to serve the market, and the market often has no interest in the public good. Ever wonder why there isn’t a vaccine for AIDS? It’s certainly possible to create and it would save the lives of billions of the world’s poorest people. But there’s no money in it. In the crude calculus of the market, people infected With AIDS are more profitable than ones who’ve been inoculated against it; they buy more pills. Almost no pharmaceutical company will bother with the incredible expense and legal liability of developing a vaccine. That’s why, right now, there is only one lone company working seriously on an HIV vaccine.

University researchers, theoretically, are free to do whatever research they want, but since so much research funding comes from corporations now, they’re in the same bind. Recently, University of Pennsylvania researchers announced a breakthrough in using stem cells for therapeutic purposes. What were they doing? Replacing heart valves? Growing new livers? Rebuilding spinal cords? Nope. They were figuring out how to use stem cells to cure baldness. Hair loss is a $1-billion-a-year industry in the U.S. alone, so there’s plenty of money to support research for the follically challenged. At this rate, we’ll have cutting-edge ways to cure comb-overs before We stop AIDS.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that scientists are horrifìed by the way corporations are gaining control of their work. Many have told me—off the record, since they’re afraid for their jobs—that entire areas of public interest science are languishing because so much science is now under private control. Research into energy efficiency, a crucial area of science, is sketchy because the oil and gas industries regard it as a threat to their market and won’t pay for it. Governments are not stepping up to the plate either»-because no one is pressuring them. “Science” is never a campaign issue because the free-market right doesn’t want the government involved in profitable discoveries. And progressives won’t take it on because they’re blinded by the ridiculous cultural Wars of the last decade, a quest for alternatives to traditional health care and a hissing intellectual objection to the idea of “objectivity” to take it on as an issue.

The problem with many of science’s critics is that they fundamentally do not understand the way science works. Sure, scientists can be jerked around by corporate money and put to work on stupid, seemingly pointless projects. But they are not, by and large, ideological freaks bent on lording their intellectual power over the public.

On the contrary, I’d argue that scientists are the paradigm of the good citizen. They’re staunch believers in meritocracy and wildly suspicious of authority—hell, they’re practically anarchistic in orientation. A scientist will never accept any argument on face value, no matter who yells it at them or how powerful that person is. The inverse is also true: If an unknown grad student at a minor school discovers data that upends accepted wisdom, it doesn’t matter if she’s a total nobody; smart scientists will always accept her conclusions, even if it means changing their most basic beliefs.

This is the lovely paradox that stands at the heart ofthe scientifìc method. We believe scientific facts to be true—even though the whole point of science is to overturn sacred cows, usher in new “facts” and make us realize we were wrong all along. Far from being ideologically blindered, scientists have a deeply nuanced understanding that the World is never quite as it seems, because they know that at any point in their lives someone could make a discovery that shakes them to their foundations.

Mind you, to win over a scientist, you can’t just blather at them: You have to prove you’re right. You have to offer data that back up your assertion. The scientific method means that to prove your point, you have to find other people who can independently reproduce your results; it’s an inherently communal system. In our increasingly ideological world, where the rich and powerful win battles by shouting down their opponents, you would expect the left to embrace science as a wonderful ideal. “How nice it is not to have to take people at their dogma,” the science writer Natalie Angier wrote in an essay two years ago, “but to be able to ask, in that snarly, whiny, chummy way that scientists do, what exactly the evidence is.”

That’s the main reason I fell in love with science. I started my career as a political writer, but soon realized that politics wasn’t a game of progress. On the contrary, human history is pretty much just the same grim cycle over and over: A group of people gain power, then use it to screw over everyone else. Rinse and repeat. Open today’s paper and you’1l see stories of Paul Martin’s graft, or tax cuts for the rich, or First Nations bands wrestling over ancient land claims. Go back 3,000 years and you’ll find hieroglyphs describing esseniially the same things.

This is not to disparage political activism; the sheer intractabiìity of injustice is why we have a moral imperative to fight it. But when I started writing about science, I felt, for the first time in a long while, an unusual emotion: optimism. The dogged focus on progress, on knowing a bit more about the world than we knew a few years ao, is insanely infectious. A while ago, I wandered into a cancer lab at Harvard and watched bleary-eyed grad students injecting thousands of genetic samples into test tubes for analysis over and over and over again. It was a humbling scene: Young kids spending hours and hours doing the most mind-numbingly boring repetitive tasks, all on the off-chance that it might lead somewhere good.

Sure, they’re hoping to advance their careers—but talk to them and it’s their deep idealism that’s most striking. “I’m on number 2,000 I think. My thumb is going to fall off,” one of them joked to me as he pumped another syringe. We chatted for a bit, and it turned out that he had arrived the year before on a scholarship from India. This is another lovely thing I’ve noticed in my journeys into labs: Science is a wildly international group of people, sharing information across national boundaries, all in the service of making some tiny contribution to human knowledge. What is there not to admire about that?

The sheer intellectual rìgour of scientists can be kind of mind-blowing. Consider the story of Gottlob Frege, a mathematical logician from the tum ofthe centuly. In 1902, he was 53 years old and about to send his second major book off to the printers, a tome intended to seal his reputation. But then he received a letter from Bertrand Russell, who was then a young professor barely out of school. Russell was writing to point out a central flaw he had discovered in Frege’s mathematical framework. When Frege read Russell’s letter, he realized in shock that the kid was right. Frege rushed to the printers and added an appendix, admitting his error—and crediting Russell. Frege was willing to recant his entire 1ife’s work because someone had come along with better data.

Can you imagine that sort of integrity in the world of business or politics? Can you imagine a politician or CEO admitting that—whoops—they’d been wrong about their central beliefs throughout their entire careers? Of course you can’t. It’s utterly inconceivable, because when it’s practised at its worst, which is how it’s too often practised, politics is the opposite of science. It is the art of baldfacedly lying with such persistence and guile that your critics give up and walk away. Down in the U.S., George W. Bush spent a year fluffing up evidence of Iraq’s arsenal to whip the country into war, then another year denying he’d ever done such a thing. He’ll probably be re-elected. In a laboratory setting, he’d be torn to pieces.

This is not to say there aren’t venal scientists, or self-important scientists, or scientists blinded by ambition or ideologies, or even scientists who blatantly falsify data to score a point. Those all exist. But the basic values that govern the field—accountability, proof and the ability to replicate results—keep malfeasance mostly in check. Science is a stunning example of human civilization gone right. Far from criticizing researchers for their occasional failures of subjectivity, the left ought to be reclaiming the scientifìc method as a progressive ideal. It is one of the few moral compasses we’ve got left.

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