Let’s just get this out of the way right now: vaccinate your kids. I know, we’re taught to ask questions, we’re taught to be skeptical, we’re American iconoclasts goddamnit and we didn’t get anywhere by getting in line and marching to someone else’s beat and something something patriotism. Except, you’re marching to someone’s beat if you don’t get your kids vaccinated (and more on that in a moment). For now, it’s time to unclench your jaw. It’s time to vaccinate your children. Otherwise, what’s next? Polio? People in my family had that. It’s horrible. I’d rather my kids have autism, which is a thing not at all caused by vaccines anyway.
Now that’s out of the way.
Which brings me to the larger question: how does this happen?
How does the anti-vaxxer attitude gain enough prominence that diseases we have eradicated or at least marginalized begin to surge anew? How does an anti-science parade march down the middle of our city squares and we not only fail to run the parade-leaders out on rails but, instead, give them a podium and a microphone and an ounce of credibility? What the crap is happening? What the hap is crappening? Wuzza wooza fizzy fuzzy muh? Whuh? Buh?!
I started to noodle on it.
Just turning it around and around in my mouth, like a soft glob of food where you suddenly bite into something hard and then have to wonder: “Jesus, what is in my mouth? Eggshell? Piece of glass, plastic, or is it a fingernail? Oh, god, it’s a fingernail.”
As I started looking closer, I started finding empathy.
Not sympathy. The difference is critical. Understanding the problem and the mindset (empathy) is a whole shed-load different from feeling emotional kinship to it (sympathy).
Because, a lot of anti-vaxx people aren’t total scramble-brained moonbats. They can spell. They have college degrees. Contrary to what people think, gasp, they might actually even be liberals. (If you think either party has the lockdown on bad information and fear-mongering, ha ha ha, ohh, you naive stripling, please let me show you the world.) Hell, I’ve been a guy who has spread bad information before — usually with the all-too-easy click of a SHARE THIS UNVERIFIED HORSESHIT link at Facebook. I’ve seen people I consider smarter than me pass around information dumber than a bag of socks.
I wanna know how. I want to crack this nut.
And I think it begins when our trust in certain institutions begins to break down.
We are taught to trust. To have faith in systems and structures and disciplines.
One such system is our health care system.
(Please, hold your laughter.)
It’s true, though, right? Even in the snark that’s already building at the back of your throat when I even mention the health care system, we still go to doctors and still go to hospitals because that’s ultimately where our trust lies. They are the experts. They know things we don’t. Even when we say we don’t trust them — we have to trust somebody, and it might as well be them.
But, inevitably, those people will fail you. And they might fail you in a spectacular way. I had an aunt who had leg and hip problems and for months tried to get it diagnosed beyond muscle strain, and eventually, she didn’t have to — because turns out, it was cancer. My mother had a friend who had neck problems and the doctors misdiagnosed too long — turns out, it was a form of meningitis, and she almost died.
We’ve had our own brushes with this. When our son was born, we heard through our crunchy hippie liberal idea chain that birth is often over-managed — it’s pitocin and an epidural and not long until a C-section is on its way, and sure enough, when we get there that was exactly what they wanted to do. It’s like a train you get on and can’t get off. And they push that shit hard. Like drug peddlers. (An epidural, before insurance, can cost anywhere from $1000 – $3000.) Last year, our son was sick — not real sick, not sick in a scary way, just with a cold, but it had lingered a while and so we took him to the doctor just to see what they had to say. Our doctor, who we love, said without hesitation that he needed antibiotics. I said, “Did you test for a bacterial infection?” because it was right at that time we were started to hear about the post-antibiotic age and how doctors overprescribe antibiotics (when I was a kid if you sneezed once, you had a week’s worth of amoxicillin), and he said, “No, it’s just a preventative.” Which is weird, given that few colds are ever treatable by antibiotics. Again, I stress: our son wasn’t problematically sick. He was happy, running around, fever long-gone. We neglected to give him the antibiotics (a scary moment because — hey, the doctor told you one thing, and if you go the other way, oh boy howdy you just fucked up), and two days later he was all good.
It’s enough to give you pause.
Just a moment’s worth — but that’s all it takes.
Because once that mirror is chipped: the whole thing shatters pretty damn easy.
Somewhere along the way, the system is going to disappoint you. Education will fail your child. Your government will launch missiles at a wedding or a school or it will raise your taxes or betray your confidence. Your insurance won’t pay for something you swore was covered: flood, accident, an injury. All of these things are threads, and once you start pulling on them — *whistles* Hoo boy, will your faith be shaken. You hear about some outbreak of food-borne illness and it doesn’t take much to see how the FDA doesn’t have the power you think it should have, how they cannot institute recalls and how recalls are entirely voluntary. And then you think about those studies that say eggs are good for you, and now they’re bad, and now they’re good, and they raise cholesterol, but they don’t raise cholesterol, and how the first thing the doctor asks you when they note your high cholesterol is, HOW MANY EGGS DO YOU EAT followed by CAN WE PUT YOU ON A CHOLESTEROL MED NOW? And you start to see how maybe the eggs-are-good study was paid for by the Sinister Egg Lobby, or how the eggs-are-bad study was paid for by goddamn Lipitor, and then CBS asks you DOES YOUR DOCTOR HAVE TIES TO BIG PHARMA (warning: the devil lurks there as an autoplaying video) and healthimpactnews-dot-com says DOCTORS EARN $3.5 BILLION IN KICKBACKS FROM PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES. And healthimpactnews sounds like a real thing — you like health, you like news, and those things should impact the shit out of each other, so yeah, yes, cool.
And then you click a little deeper into the healthimpactnews site and you find talk of ozone therapy curing ebola (but of course it’s repressed!) and hey look at this vaccine cover-up and did you know application of broccoli sprouts improves autism — and at first some of those things seem woo-woo weird, like, hey, that can’t be right, but then you follow the pulled thread back and you remember, oh right, big business pays for studies and doctors were pushing meds when I didn’t want them to and the government blows up children and OH GODDAMN SHIT I CAN’T TRUST ANYTHING ANYMORE. Soon you learn that healthimpactnews is bullshit, and so you either have to go deeper down the I can’t trust anything rabbit hole or you have to plant a flag and say, this far, no further, I trust in this random asshole website who actually probably doesn’t believe its own lies and is really just selling content and advertising and clicks.
You no longer know what to believe.
Because that thing you just read sounds crazy, but we’re fans of crazy. We like to think we know things that the BIG SYSTEMS and CORPORATE MONSTERS don’t want us to know. And some of it is real! Some of it isn’t horseshit — we see how big companies legitimately abuse people, how banks give wafer-thin mortgages, how a corporation will pollute water that people drink. Corporate and governmental abuse is no myth. It happens. Not all the time, maybe not even all that often, but that doesn’t matter. We’re shit at risk analysis. Driving in a car is a lot worse than riding in a plane, but one plane crash and suddenly we’re like, nope, fuck that, I’m not a bird, I will not violate God’s own laws just to get to Tulsa more quickly. People die endlessly of flu but we get a statistically non-existent blip of ebola in this country and everybody’s shitting out their internal organs hoping they don’t catch the disease that makes them shit out their internal organs. More people are killed by hippos and cows, but fuck you, sharks. *throws dynamite at sharks*
So, all this adds up, and then you go onto a place like Facebook, where ideas transmit fast. See, once, you wouldn’t read this post — you’d hear me tell it to you at a conference or in an elevator somewhere. And when I told you about my aunt or my Mom’s friend, maybe you’d nod and say, yeah, yeah, that happened to a friend of mine, or a friend or a friend, and we’d take our respective stories — true, false, or statistically improbable — and we’d carry them onto other groups. But we’d do this very, very slowly. Many times the idea would die out. Ideas in this way transmit like viruses or bacteria — they used to be slow, but now, Facebook? Facebook makes transmission of ideas fast. (Hence: “gone viral.”) We share bad information quickly, and we rile each other up about the things we thought were true — our distrust cracks the windshield collectively, now, not just on an individual, singular basis. Even this post that I’m writing? I told you about my experiences, about my aunt, about my mother’s friend — and we take those things in as data points when really they’re just fucking anecdotes with no meaning in the greater scheme. And god, even when you go looking for data, you can find all these correlating points still are open to wild interpretation (remember the ties between Internet Explorer and the murder rate?).
You eventually have to return trust and faith to something, so you start to put it in those people or those sites that you perceive are telling you the truth. People who have not yet betrayed your trust.
(So far as you know. You may see their agendas soon enough.)
And we spread the information.
And we nod and smile and tell each other we know things others don’t.
And we feel good because we found some inherent truth. Some signal amidst noise.
And we append to these things our own agendas, often unrealized.
It’s mostly a lie, of course. The truth is usually out there if you look hard enough. You can find a consensus on most topics — an imperfect consensus, but one that is often better than trusting like, that one guy on that website.
But this is how we get there.
This is how we stop vaccinating our kids.
This is how we disbelieve in climate change.
Or how we start to wonder if Obama really is a Kenyan socialist. Or we share inflated numbers of the dead to support our gun control wishes, or we pass around up other bullshit statistics to counter the efforts of gun control. We eat up mis- and disinformation with a spoon because we need to eat something. Doubt has opened the door, and when that happens, if we’re not careful, a whole lot of bad information can get in through the gap. We don’t always lie to each other knowing they’re lies.
We lie to each other because we’re waystations for other people’s deceptions.
We’re idea conduits. Agenda flingers. Little doubt factories.
So, how do we combat it?
I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t. I think you look for consensus. I think you look at everything with a skeptical eye and try to search out experts. I think you trust known sources of journalism and distrust fringe journalism — but even here, already I can feel my certainty in that eroding because plenty of journalistic sources are really just entertainment cloaked in the thinnest, most diaphanous veneer of “news.” Best bet is to recognize that you know less than you know, and that growing up is about embracing uncertainty rather than proselytizing the gospel truth.
It’s hard. It’s really hard.
And I think that’s what this post is about: just acknowledging that it is hard to get good information, and that distrust is overwhelming and damaging, and that the disruption of the Glorious Internet sometimes means awesome things but it sometimes means really shitfucky information gets transmitted really quickly. Anecdotes become artisanal data very, very fast — often without us realizing it. And before we know it, we’re all giving Jenny McCarthy a microphone, and kids are dying from measles they caught at a goddamn amusement park.
P.S. vaccinate your kids, for Chrissakes.
P.P.S. global warming is totally a thing.
P.P.S.S. Read this book: You Are Not So Smart.