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Fighting the Measles and Dangerous Ideas

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 26, 2019

For the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten writes about this year’s measles outbreak in the US, the largest such outbreak in decades. The outbreak is solely due to a growing number of people who decline to vaccinate their children, so the fight has become one not against a disease, as it was decades ago, but against dangerous ideas.

But, if we have to pick a Patient Zero, Andrew Wakefield will do. Wakefield is the British gastroenterologist who produced the notorious article, published in The Lancet in 1998, linking the M.M.R. vaccine to autism. The study, which featured just twelve subjects, was debunked, the article was pulled, and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine — as well as his reputation, in scientific circles anyway. But, owing to his persistence in the years since, his discredited allegations have spread like mold. In the anti-vaxxer pantheon, he is martyr and saint. There are also the movement’s celebrities, such as Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., stubborn in the face of ridicule, and the lesser-known but perhaps no less pernicious YouTube evangelists, such as Toni Bark, a purveyor of homeopathic products, and the Long Island pediatrician Lawrence Palevsky. If your general practitioner is Dr. Google, you can find a universe of phony expertise. The movement seems to sniff out susceptibility. Not surprisingly, there is money there, though the financial incentives behind this strand of advocacy are less clear than, say, what has led the Koch brothers to champion fossil fuels. This spring, the Washington Post reported that the New York hedge-fund manager Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, have given more than three million dollars to anti-vaccination causes and helped finance “Vaxxed,” Wakefield’s 2016 documentary, which purports to reveal a C.D.C. conspiracy to cover up the connection between vaccines and autism. Needless to say, the anti-vaccination ethos is by no means exclusive to the New York tristate-area Orthodox community. It thrives in certain pockets — affluent boho-yoga moms, evangelical Christians, Area 51 insurgents. The vaccination rates are about the same in Monsey and in Malibu. Before New Square, the three most recent big outbreaks of measles occurred among Somali immigrants, in Minnesota; Amish farmers, in Ohio; and a hodgepodge of visitors to Disneyland.

“It’s shocking how strong the anti-vax movement is,” Zucker said. “What surprises me is the really educated people who are passionately against vaccinations. I see this as part of a larger war against science-based reality. We need to study vaccine hesitancy as a disease.” He gave a TEDX talk recently about the crippling disconnect between the speed at which information, good or bad, spreads now and the slow, grinding pace of public-health work. He managed, by way of the general theory of relativity, to establish the equivalence of H1N1, Chewbacca Mask Lady, and Pizzagate: “How do we immunize and protect ourselves from the damaging effects of virality?”

The internet is such an efficient way to spread ideas (regardless of their validity) that you begin to wonder if instant global individual-to-individual and individual-to-everyone communication is an insurmountable Great Filter for societies.