Anti-Vaxxers I Know and Love
This H1N1 stuff has brought out the angry, grumpy, argumentative, (shall we say, militant-leaning?) skeptic in me. The part of me that wants to call people nasty names. The part that wants to wish bad things on people. The part that wants to make snarky status updates on Facebook (oh yeah, I am THAT angry!).
The part that wants to immediately have a bunch of kids just so I can take them all to get vaccinated. All of them. “Why are you getting your children vaccinated today, ma’am?” the nurse would say. And I would respond “Why? Because I love my children and don’t want them to die. Also, I don’t want people with compromised immune systems to get infected because I weakened the herd immunity. Also, because I can use my critical faculties to judge the evidence and recognize that vaccines don’t cause autism or cancer or H1N1 or whatever the conspiracy theorists are saying today. Also, because modern medicine has meant that none of my children have died from polio, tuberculosis, rickets, rotavirus, cholera, or a host of other illnesses that children in Canada used to die from and children in developing countries still do.” That’s what I would say. And then the nurse and I would high-five.
But I don’t call people names (not outside of my head anyways), and it wouldn’t matter if I wished ill on people because wishes don’t come true without purposive action, and I don’t have a bunch of children to belligerently vaccinate. So what do I do?
I rail on the internet about those anti-vaxxers whom I don’t know – Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey, the Australian Vaccination Network (?, that Canadian lady Mary Rosco or something?), etc – but a more delicate touch is needed when actually talking to a friend or family member who buys into the pseudoscience. After all, I care about their health, but I also care that they continue liking me.
Not that it’s easy staying calm and friendly when you hear reasons for refusing vaccinations like “Since so many people believe vaccines cause autism, it’s just seems safer not to vaccinate,” or “Someone I knew years ago had a vaccination and three weeks later died of a brain infection/got the flu/etc” or “I just don’t think they’ve been tested enough in Canada.” (Answer key: many many people have been wrong before and they are this time, the ONE study that showed a connection between vaccines and autism turned out to be faked; that was really terribly unfortunate timing, a coincidence, say it with me kids “Correlation is not causation” and; the reason vaccines come out later in Canada than they do in the US is that whatever testing they do? We do more. Also, with the SOLE exception of the active virus, EVERYTHING ELSE in the vaccine is the exact same stuff as every other year.)
It’s frustrating to see the misinformation propagated by the anti-vax celebrities and organizations trickling down and being repeated by people I care about, and it can be tempting just to decide to avoid the subject entirely. After all, how many times has Jenny McCarthy or the AVN been confronted about their lies, and they never change their minds? There is no point arguing with True Believers, they don’t care about evidence, so evidence will never convince them.
That’s a little… condescending though, isn’t it? I don’t know about your friends, but I suspect mine deserve a little better than to be given up on as irrational ideologues. I suggest we take advice from the great Carl Sagan and consider that people who believe in pseudoscience are people who are really interested in science, they just have never been given the tools to help them distinguish between the good stuff and the bad. Give them some tools! Sure, they should have learned basic science literacy when they were kids, but they obviously didn’t. It isn’t too late. After all, if I had been given up as a lost hope, I might still be Christian or Pagan. I learned, why should I expect less of anyone else?
Don’t get too excited though, opinions rarely change dramatically over the course of one conversation. You may deliver all the best evidence with your finest rhetorical strategy and still be met with “Well, maybe that’s true, but I still don’t think I would vaccinate.” Don’t despair! People believe things for reasons other than rational, and those emotional reservations can be the most difficult to penetrate. This is the point in the conversation where you say “Sure!” and change the subject. You aren’t giving up. You are being respectful, and you are recognizing that you have done your part in planting a seed. Maybe the subject will come up again and you can water that seed. Maybe someone else unwittingly will, in another conversation. Maybe your friend, having been introduced to the idea, will refilter some of what they already believe or at least filter differently what information they now consume.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to tell them when you go for your vaccination, and make sure they know you are fine afterward. Don’t make a big deal about it.
Also, keep quiet when you steal their children away to belligerently vaccinate them. (JUST KIDDING, DON’T DO THIS.)