Google News 09/24: Deceased kids drive anti-vax activism
The story of Minnesota woman Catelin Clobes is tragic on two accounts. After falling asleep alongside her 6 month old daughter Evee, she woke up to find the child dead — killed, a medical report would later find, by postural asphyxiation.
This is a horrible ordeal in and of itself. But it’s compounded by the fact that Catelin, being dissatisfied with the official cause of her daughter’s death, is now convinced that a round of shots administered 36 hours beforehand are to blame.
As a result, Catelin has inducted her daughter’s tragic death into the increasingly popular myth of vaccine injury: the idea that vaccination can cause harm to children. Her position is encapsulated by the anti-vax motto that ‘healthy babies don’t just die’. The problem, of course, is that they do — conditions like SIDS and suffocation are tragic but well-documented—but despite all the evidence the anti-vax movement continues to thrive.
This tension between objective fact and individual experience, I think, is coming to play a role in more and more news stories, and can be encapsulated by the notion of subjective truth.
Many interpretations of the anti-vax movement emphasize that it rejects science. We hear about the original The Lancet paper, now widely discredited, which first purported a link between vaccines and autism. And online, where information resides without scrutiny or fact-checking, we see clear tendencies for anecdotal evidence and confirmation bias, culminating in a wealth of sympathetic but pseudoscientific accounts.
While it’s certainly true that the anti-vax movement is unscientific, this characterization doesn’t seem to be best suited at dealing with the problems involved. For one, facts are notoriously weak at changing people’s minds — and even if they do, they aren’t guaranteed to result in a change in behavior.
Besides that, characterizing the anti-vax movement as being anti-science will fall on deaf ears. On the contrary, the movement perceives itself to be the most scientific side: in their self-perception, they are free-thinkers who are presenting anomalous data to the establishment, right on the cusp of something like a paradigm shift. Their suspicion of science rest on a false identification of what it is: true science, they feel, is what they’re doing themselves.
So it isn’t enough to simply point out the ways in which anti-vax activists aren’t being objective: we must grapple with the underlying forces that are causing it to happen.
We must grapple with the underlying realties that cause a movement like anti-vax to exist in the first place
To this end, understanding the anti-vax movement as an emergence of subjective truth may be helpful. Of course, this is a loaded term that some might be uncomfortable with. There’s a growing consensus that we’re living in an increasingly ‘post-truth’ era in which basic facts and objective realties are being woefully ignored. For that reason, entertaining a notion of a personalized truth may be considered misguided and even dangerous.
But the fact remains that, for most of us, our most intimate beliefs don’t necessarily correspond to objective standards, but are rather informed by a set of heuristics and biases that are person-specific. Our experience of the world is not filtered through the lens of scientific validity — it’s catered to us by individual perspective.
So too for anti-vax activists. For Catelin, her child was vaccinated, and then she died: no amount of scientific data will ever change that, and the question of causality doesn’t actually matter. For that reason, when opponents try to argue against her view, she perceives it as an attack against her deepest and most intimate certainty.
Consider, for example, this quote by Catelin;
“I’m not out on this big ‘anti-vaxx’ wagon, to deceive people,” she wrote. “I’m just telling my truth. What happened to my daughter. How much I loved her. How much this has broken me.”
These are the stakes of the anti-vax woman: the ability for a group of people to ‘tell their truth’ despite of whatever obstacles they perceive to be in there way.
Finally, a revealing excerpt from the NBC report:
Anti-vaccination communities have long favored this type of personal testimony to get their message across. These stories are also presented as being more meaningful and more ‘real’ than official statistics.
That is precisely the thing that drives the anti-vax movement: the fact that personal testimony is far ‘realer’ than official statistics, even though it lacks the standard of objectivity. That, I think, will be the lesson we have to keep in mind when dealing with the rise of movement like anti-vax.