Measles and Willful Ignorance

Child with measles, a potentially life-threatening disease

Child with measles, a potentially life-threatening disease

The super bowl will be played tomorrow and there is some concern that with so many people in one place, there is danger that the recent measles outbreak may lead to cases from those attending the game, particularly as there have been cases reported in Arizona. But wait, wasn’t measles declared eliminated in the U.S.? Yes, it was, back in 2000. The problem is not that the vaccine has stopped working; it’s that there are a substantial number of parents – especially in California – who refuse to have their children vaccinated. It’s bad enough that this endangers the children of these parents, but it also endangers others, particularly infants who are too young to be vaccinated, pregnant women, or people with immune problems that prevent them from being vaccinated. There was a story recently on NPR about such a child, recovering from leukemia, whose father it asking that the school in Marin County, California, his son attends bar students from attending who have not been vaccinated.

Why are the parents refusing to have their children vaccinated? Because they have bought in to the anti-vaccine movement which claims a link between vaccination and autism. This idea comes from an article by Andrew Wakefield published in the medical journal The Lancet in 1998. The article has long since been discredited and Wakefield, based on evidence that the study was fraudulent and that Wakefield had a financial conflict of interest, has been bared from practicing medicine in Britain. All the available scientific evidence indicates that there is no link between vaccinations and autism. That evidence has not been enough to convince doubters, which include some politicians (Michele Bachmann) and TV personalities (Jenny McCarthy). In addition to citing the junk science represented by Wakefield, such voices also talk about parental rights. However, individual rights have to be seen within the context of social responsibility – no one has absolute rights to take actions that endanger others.

This phenomenon is one more case of willful ignorance, the refusal to accept evidence-based science. We continue to see this among evolution deniers and those who don’t believe in global warming. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicates how large the gulf is between the views of scientists in the U.S. and non-scientists across a wide range of issues. The results confirm the importance of encouraging more attention in our schools to critical thinking and the process of scientific enquiry.

Facts: irrelevant!

just-the-factsHow hard is it to get people to change their beliefs? Really hard, even if facts are provided that refute those beliefs.  And even if those facts are accepted as true!  A recent study in Scientific American points to this conclusion. The study, by Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College, dealt with the now-debunked idea that a vaccine for childhood diseases like measles causes autism.  The researchers were able to bring the parents who were vaccine-skeptics to the point that they believed the scientific research which showed no link existed.  However, they found surprisingly that after accepting the scientific evidence as fact, the parents indicated that they were even less likely to have their children vaccinated.   According to Nyham, “The first message of our study is that the messaging we use to promote childhood vaccines may not be effective, and in some cases may be counterproductive.” The explanation for this behavior is not completely clear, but Nyham speculates, based on previous studies, that the vaccine doubters likely recalled other objections or concerns: “We suggest that people are motivated to defend their more skeptical or less favorable attitudes towards vaccines.”  The takeaway:  changing people’s minds takes more than presenting facts, and may call for messages with a variety of arguments to counter misinformation and myths.

The recent debate about evolution between Bill Nye (the “science guy”) and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum may send an even more disturbing message.  It was widely acknowledged (including by Christian Today) that Bill Nye, basing his arguments on radiometric dating, the fossil record, and common sense, clearly won the debate.  Of course, whether the debate convinced evolution doubters to accept scientific evidence is uncertain.  What seems, however, to be an outcome of the debate is that it has led to a flood of contributions to a proposed theme park addition to Kentucky’s Creation Museum.  In fact, a number of scientists were leery of having such a debate, as it gives an aura of believability to creationism.  It’s a sad thought that just talking about such issues can be problematic and can reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs.