In my recent post on the growth of anti-vaccination ideology in the Republican party I described the process by which I think it’s possible that anti-vaccination politics has got a hold on some prominent republicans, entering through the back door of sexual “morality” (pardon the pun) and gaining prominence through the influence of group dynamics and a general culture of anti science. But this phenomenon is surprising to a lot of people (myself included) because anti-vax ideas are generally seen as a thing of the cultural left rather than the political right. I’m no exception to this rule, and generally saw anti-vax politics as a thing associated with left-wing hippy-dippies. I’ve always been scornful of the idea that it is a part of the political movement of inner city rich liberals (Gwyneth Paltrow’s vag-steamers), and associated more with rejectionist radical vegan and anarchist hippy leftists, and I’ve been aware for a long time that it is also common amongst a certain type of right-wing religious type, but to see it gaining prominence among the mainstream of the American political right is disturbing and unusual. It’s disturbing because bipartisanship in stupidity is dangerous, and unusual because the right is usually happy to define itself in opposition to others, and it’s unusual to see the right adopt ideas that are traditionally associated with the left.
This suggests that anti-vaccination ideas have a long right wing history, and they aren’t getting any new ideas from the left but have had this in their blood for a long time. But this also suggests that anti-vaccination ideology has been bi-partisan for a long time. I’m interested in why that might be and what the implications are for the politics of “anti-science.”
Dan Kahan from Yale, who has a history of researching this kind of thing, has recently published a long and confusing, almost unreadable article exploring the relationship between political views and vaccination policy, interpreted (bravely) in the Washington Post here. To the extent that his findings are comprehensible, he seems to be suggesting that rejection of vaccination is associated equally with right-wing and left-wing political ideals, and that this is very different to rejection of climate science, gun control or marijuana legalization. The Washington Post hints at another issue in analysis of this problem: political views are often inferred from vaccination proportions in geographical regions, but just as with voting, behavior at the aggregate level does not necessarily reflect behavior at the individual level (this is called the ecological fallacy) and just because there are high rates of non-vaccination and measles in affluent, liberal areas doesn’t mean it’s the liberals in those areas that are the cause. Kahan’s research suggests that at an individual level much more complex motivating factors are at play. The Washington Post article also references a paper by Stephan Lewandowsky suggesting free market ideology rejects vaccination, which contradicts Kahan but doesn’t seem particularly unusual: free market ideology is often a part of extreme right wing views in America, so it figures that endorsing one would be associated with endorsing the remaining two.
So why does anti-vaccination ideology transcend political ideology? The first reason, I think, is that it is old. Anti-vax ideas are as old as vaccination, which makes them much, much older than a lot of other “anti-science” ideas like global warming denialism or fear of power lines. Anti-vaccination ideas sprang up around the time that the smallpox vaccine was mandated, and have renewed their strength every time a new vaccine was introduced. This perhaps puts it in the same vein as creationism (though for very different reasons) but distinguishes it from modern anti-science reactions such as to global warming. Having been around for more than 100 years, anti-vaccination ideology has had a lot of opportunities to mutate and infect a wide cross-section of society. Anti-vaccination ideas can be based on notions of purity, distrust of the government, religious ideas about the origin of the products, basic failure to understand conflicting risks, and – as we have seen recently in Pakistan – reactions to fake doctors working for the CIA. So for left wing people it’s about distrust of companies, for hippies it’s about body purity, for vegeterians it’s about animal products, for libertarians it’s about government control and for religious nutbags it’s about religious nutbaggery. But for all these people their objections seem internally consistent given their available scientific knowledge.
Anti-vaccination ideology is also a reaction to an immediate thing. Vaccinations are an injection into someone’s children, that happen now and come with a real though small risk of adverse effects (mostly minor). This makes them a much more powerful thing than evolution (a mere concept) or global warming, which is a risk occurring in the future. Many of my friends have told me how the act of getting their infants vaccinated makes them aware of the desire to baulk, because the experience is visceral and immediate, not intellectual and delayed (none of my friends have relented in their determined pro-vaccination stance, but it gives them pause to think). Thus it is easy for anti-vaxxers to create new generations of concerned individuals, and keep pushing their ideological platform. This visceral experience also cuts across ideological divides, by dint of its physicality, so that it is no longer a debate about abstract future concerns, but becomes an issue with real physical consequences to be discussed now. It is an easy fear to exploit, and it is a fear that easily transcends party lines.
In many ways our reaction to infectious diseases is the opposite of the way we should react to global warming. Eliminating an infectious disease through vaccination requires an easily managed, cheap individual decision that is meaningless by itself and only powerful if everyone else does it. In contrast, the best responses to global warming are institutional, involving shared action through institutions. You can choose to sit in your room freezing in winter and not turning on your heating, but it will make no difference to the carbon economy unless a government acts to change the source of the power you are eschewing, whereas shared action implemented through politicians at an institutional level will make change happen rapidly. Responses to global warming involve changing industrial systems, whereas responses to measles involve individuals sticking a needle in a child. The difference is obvious, and profound. But because the required vaccination rate is very high even a very small number of people reacting against this theory are enough to destroy the whole thing – and it appears that this small group of individuals cross the political spectrum, so it’s the responsibility of people of all political stripes to stomp on this scourge – it’s not sufficient any more for right wingers to assume that this public health scourge is something the left has to deal with.
My suspicion is that the rich liberals of Marin County are simply the most visible and obvious of anti-vaxxers, because they are the ones with the voice who are photogenic, but that anti-vaccination ideas cut across party, racial and ethnic lines and are best dealt with not through cultural communication but through the law. Not getting your children vaccinated is hardly a challenging decision, especially in a society without public health care, and signing a form to get your kid into school is hardly a big deal considering the general overheads associated with starting school. But most of these anti-vaxxers won’t privilege vague health concerns over education and won’t want to make trouble out of it. This is because most of these anti-vaxxers are responding to a vague suspicion about how much they can trust science, not from a determined investigation of the risks of vaccination. This theory is related to my last post, that ordinary individuals have to make judgments about science from authority, and people who reject much of science are doing it from a position of distrust of authority rather than scientific judgment. When their political and cultural guides and (in the unique case of vaccination) the law tell them they’re wrong they will acquiesce because most people’s interaction with science arises through appeals to authority, rather than individual scientific judgments. This makes anti-vaccination ideas very different to anti-global warming ideas. At its best a response to global warming will use economic instruments which force companies to change their practice but (ideally) don’t involve any individual change – individuals won’t even notice – whereas effective responses to infectious disease require strict legislative changes that force individuals to take a specific action.
I think there are no lessons to be learnt from the battle against global warming to apply to vaccination, and vice versa. They’re completely different political challenges with different causes and solutions. The anti-vaccination movement is also an example of how the notion of “anti-science” is meaningless in a practical sense, and better replaced with nuanced responses to specific complaints, or legal responses to specific objections. In the case of global warming, objections to the science of global warming are best ignored and dealt with through legislative changes and direct government influence on industry. They’re completely different issues with different responses and different causes, and different implications for the interaction between society and individuals. Not all “anti-science” is equal, and in reality “anti-science” is a meaningless concept. Understanding people and reacting to their concerns is the best way for governments to respond to challenges to rational policy.