Fear and Vaccines

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 (Paul Staley)

Science is what takes place at the boundary between the known and the unknown. Or at least it does if you're a scientist.

For the rest of us, science can be more like an intellectual ammunition store where we shop for evidence to support things that we are already inclined to believe. And, in the age of the internet, this store is a vast emporium where we find not only the latest findings, but also the discredited and discarded. It is the latest in technology combined with the dinged up inventory of a thrift store.

But more often than not it is fear and not curiosity that directs us down a particular aisle. Fear government and you can select from arguments asserting that climate change is fraudulent and essentially a conspiracy to extend bureaucratic control over our lives. Fear corporate power and you can browse through evidence that vaccines or genetically modified organisms are toxins foisted on us by profit-driven companies.

It is fear that twists the topography of our political landscape to such a degree that the current vaccination debate becomes a Mobius strip where right wing libertarians wind up on the same side as West Marin counter-culturists. As one observer has pointed out, the decision to forego vaccinations creates a strange permutation of the Occupy paradigm of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent: those who assert a right to opt out of vaccinations are a tiny minority who can do so in relative safety precisely because 99 percent of the population has taken measures to protect not only their own children, but everyone else's.

This allegiance to individual autonomy amounts to a rejection of science's greatest gift to us, an appreciation of exactly how interconnected this world is. All of our individual actions have an impact on the planet and our communities. A resurgent right wing may have dragged the old "Don't Tread on Me" flags out of the national attic, but in the age of the carbon footprint and in a world plagued by persistent diseases it is fair to ask who exactly is doing the treading.


With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.

Paul Staley works for a housing nonprofit. He lives in San Francisco.