Measles, a disease considered eliminated in 2000, is now rampaging through the country. The causes of this latest outbreak are symptomatic of what ails our society: a slavish devotion to celebrity, the elevation of emotion over facts, the failure of science and math education, the rejection of evidence, and the inability to discern authoritative sources from a crackpot behind a keyboard.
Our national health relies on Americans understanding the difference between peer-reviewed research and a discredited study, just as our political health demands that we distinguish between fake news and reliable sources with attributed quotes, between research and facts and garbage. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan point out, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.
Let’s look at how we got here. The state of Washington is in a state of emergency after 41 cases of measles have been confirmed in Clark County, Washington. Thirty of those affected are children under the age of 10. In Georgia, public health officials confirmed three members of an unvaccinated family had also fallen ill. The potentially deadly virus, declared eliminated in the US 18 years ago, has resurfaced because parents are foregoing vaccinating their children.
The media dubs this parental decision ‘vaccine hesitancy,’ an almost Orwellian-level misnomer, since the decision these parents have made is not hesitant, it’s deadly.
No other vaccine-preventable disease causes as many death as measles. In 1980, 2.6 million people died from measles; by 1990 that number had dropped to 545,000 thanks to vaccination. By 2000, the CDC declared that measles had been eliminated due to an absence of continuous disease transmission for greater than 12 months in the US.
But that has all changed in recent years. Most blame the resurgence of the disease on the rise of celebrity anti-vaxxers like actress Jenny McCarthy, who helped popularize a non-existent ‘link’ between autism and vaccines. But the problem is deeper and more insidious than our national adoration of celebrity.
McCarthy relied on a now-discredited study for much of what she claimed. The myth she promoted would never have taken off if more Americans understood the difference between causation and correlation: i.e. that simply because there is a relationship between two variables, one cannot assume that one variable causes the other. This logical fallacy is illustrated to hilarious effect by the joke:
The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The French eat a lot of fat and also suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The Japanese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The Italians drink excessive amounts of red wine and also suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
The Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.
Conclusion: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is what kills you.
Very few anti-vaxxers would grasp this joke highlights, and that illustrates a basic failure of science education in our country.
There’s more here than that. If one uses scientific facts from authoritative sources in a debate with anti-vaxxers, they retreat to that other virus of our times, conspiracy theory. Just like the fact-free, post-truth conspiracy narratives now routinely flung from every side within minutes of any national tragedy, anti-vaccination propaganda is rife with talk of government setups and ‘evil drug companies’ supposedly intent on fleecing helpless populations for cash. With no regard for logic, reason, or Occam’s razor, these narratives have ‘explanations’ and alternative ‘facts’ to fit every scenario. In this world, no true believer is ever confronted with incontrovertible scientific evidence, because if such evidence is presented, it simply becomes proof that their pet theory is true.
As an example, take an article like this that states authoritatively ‘vaccines do not cause autism.’ In the eyes of an anti-vaxxer, this article is suspect for the very reason it should be believed: it’s from the CDC, a government entity.
Science and mathematics aren’t the only academic subjects that anti-vaxxers and other conspiracy theorists ignore. They also seem to have slept through history — in this case, history that’s within living memory. Anti-vaxxers claim that measles wasn’t that bad, even while millions of children died from a disease vividly illustrated in photographs and news clippings from only a few decades ago.
Of course, anti-vaxxers will also dismiss historic evidence as propaganda. We are now a ‘strongly conspiratorial society,’ according to Christopher Bader, lead author of a 2016 study that found that a majority of Americans believe the government is concealing what it ‘knows’ about the 9/11 attacks. Almost a quarter of Americans now believe the moon landing was faked. While there’s cultural forces at work behind Americans’ rampant embrace of conspiracy theories, it’s also illustrative of decades-strong failure of education.