Maybe because it’s almost back-to-school time, but vaccinations are in the news on my blogroll. Pal MD has an unintentionally hillarious post about some scandalously stupid reportage on a so-called “victim” of Gardasil. (Longtime readers will recall that support for inoculation/vaccination are just about the only thing that Historiann has in common with Cotton Mather!)
She reports that she went to the ER and was told she was likely having a stroke, and was sent home to return if it got worse. Now, I realize we’re getting third-hand information, but a reporter is supposed to clarify this. No one who goes to the hospital with a “stroke” is sent home to see if it gets worse.
Uhm, wouldn’t a real reporter dump the lady boo-hooing about her off-label use of Gardasil, and instead, you know, figure out which local hospital is sending home people suffering from strokes? Now that’s a man-bites-dog story if I’ve ever heard one! Just go read the whole thing to feel teh stupid and how it burns. He’s got another recent post about how people with medical degrees need to take back vaccination education, instead of leaving it to the cranks, the quacks, and the religiously insane anti-vaxers.
And speaking of quacks and cranks, our friend Knitting Clio (who is not herself a crank or a quack at all) reported last week that her friendly neighborhood chiropractor–who has been of great assistance with her back pain–is now giving helpful seminars in local tea-shops about the dangers of vaccination. She writes about the hazards of this woo-peddling: “Take Colorado [ed. note-- please!], where the rate of vaccination (75%) is below what is needed for herd immunity. Between 1996 and 2005, 208 adults and 32 children in Colorado died of diseases that could most likely have been prevented by vaccinations. The state spends millions of dollars per year caring for children and adults with diseases such as pertussis (whooping cough), influenza, and measles that could have been prevented by vaccination.” (Side note: why do chiropractors hate the vax? I’ve seen and heard of it before, but what’s the reason for it?)
The struggle over knowledge about vaccination is a cautionary tale about the dangers of professional complacency in the face of overwhelming success. This is a paradox: when an evidence-based consensus emerges within a profession and there are no professionals who truly disagree with the consensus in the main, that’s when movements propelled by outsiders (but legitimized by disgruntled or marginalized insiders) feel emboldened to challenge the consensus. It’s not just primary-care physicians who have to worry about this–it’s also anthropologists and biologists, whose professional knowledge of Charles Darwin and the significance of his theories have been vigorously challenged by people outside of universities and without any professional credentials. Historians also have had strange ideological struggles emerge out of what was a well-documented consensus on the facts of, for example, the Holocaust, the causes of the U.S. American Civil War, and the history and meaning of the Confederate flag.
In all of these cases, a hardy band of conspiracy-minded and/or magical thinkers was able to gin up enough popular support to convince other neutral observers that there might be a scholarly “controversy” where none in fact existed among the actual scholars. Does this happen because there are a few determined cranks and quacks still inside each profession, and they’re just very good at finding allies outside the profession because they no longer have allies within? Or do political movements seize upon those few disaffected professionals, flattering them and giving them an appreciative audience so that they’ll serve as scholarly figureheads? In all of these cases, it seems that there are a few professionals who are willing to sign on to provide a “respectable” face to the fake controversy–David Irving in the case of Holocaust denial, for example, or Michael Behe for “Intelligent” Design? These credentialed intellectuals were happy to provide a presentable face to deeply disreputable, and even dangerous, ideas.
Fight the woo, within and without your profession, and remember that things like “evidence” and “overwhelming scholarly consensus” mean nothing if we don’t continue to explain exactly what the evidence is and what the consensus means.