Tuesday, March 17, 2015

When You're Losing, Change the Subject: Vaccines and the "Freedom" Agenda

I have blogged recently about the misuse of the term "research" by various movements seeking to argue with mainstream scientific consensus around a range of topics. People opposed to vaccines (led in particular by those who believe that vaccination causes autism and other maladies) have been in the news much lately, although the same arguments have been active around issues of climate change, evolutionary biology, and other issues. National Geographic recently published a cover story on this, provocatively titled (in the print version) "The War on Science".

The anti-vaccine movement has taken a lot of flak and pushback recently, both from the medical & public health community concerned that dropping rates of vaccination will undo progress from the last 100 years and from concerned parents afraid that the drop in herd immunity will expose their children to diseases long since removed from the population at large. It has been, from a social and political point of view, a fascinating and rare example of a loud minority being countered by a much larger majority. On a number of other issues vocal minorities hold sway simply because the larger population doesn't care enough. Apparently, public health is not one of those issues.

Given this pushback, it's unsurprising that the anti-vaccine movement is trying to change the terms of debate. Whenever somebody is losing an argument in the US, they try to turn it into an argument about Freedom, because Freedom is the one trump card that people think always wins the argument. This meme, now circulating on the internet, is emblematic of this approach:

I'm surprised that they didn't throw mom, the flag, and apple pie in there, but you get the picture. I mean, how can anybody possibly be against any of these wonderful things?

The organization sponsoring this particular argument, an outfit in California called Your Family, Your Choice, is trying to fight legislation that will take away the philosophical exemption to childhood vaccination currently allowed under California law. Many of the folks who oppose vaccination are indeed also opposed to science and research, at least as these things are understood by the medical research community. Such folks often want their own science, want to reach (or have already reached) their own conclusions, and are not kind (and often not very civil) to those who disagree with them.

But all of that is neither here nor there - what really interests me is the "I am pro-freedom" part of the argument. This is indeed the "go-to" for folks on the losing end of a public debate. Recently we've seen certain segments of our society opposed to gay marriage making the same claim on behalf of small businesses that don't want to serve gays - just as two generations ago, similar folks claimed "freedom" as a justification to turn away interracial couples. "Freedom" was the cry of George Wallace on the steps of the Alabama schoolhouse when he railed against "the oppression of the rights, privilege, and sovereignty" of his state in the face of integrationist pressure.

The fact is that we all give up a measure of freedom as the price of living in a civilized, advanced society. We agree not to drive through a red light. We agree to wear our seat belts - 49 out of 50 states in the US have some form of mandatory seat belt laws on the books. We agree to file certain kinds of information with the government at various levels. We agree to pay our taxes. We agree not to discriminate against fellow citizens when engaging in public commerce or service. Failure to do these things comes with the penalty of government sanction.

We suffer these infringements on our freedom because there are some collective goods that cannot be had otherwise. Because of our traffic laws - actually quite draconian by the standards of much of the world - we enjoy some of the safest highways and streets in the world, vastly safer than they were 80 or 100 years ago. Because of our attention to civil rights, populations once voiceless and enslaved are now freer and much better off and we are closer to realizing our ideals as a republic of equals.

Those who hold up the "pro-freedom" banner are trying to escape this reality. They want to free-ride on the rest of society, to deny that there are some things we can only have if we all contribute. Herd immunity from disease is one of those things, however much some folks may want to deny it.

So I find this latest adaptation by a political movement interesting, even entirely predictable. But I also suspect that it may be a last gasp of an effort that may soon collapse. The argument against vaccination is too weak, and the consequences too severe, for these folks to win. I have no doubt that we will see a great deal more shouting and gnashing of teeth in certain corners, and likely many more interesting internet memes. But as Richard Feynman reminded us a generation ago, for every successful technology "reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

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