But What If They’re Wrong?
A couple weeks ago, our little daughter Lain was under the weather. She’d just gotten some immunizations and they had left her cranky, cranky, cranky. The first day was spent with her pushing away the breast and going hungry. The second day was spent with voracious hunger and trying to catch up from the day before. The third day was spent resting and recuperating from the hunger and anger of the previous couple of days (and waking up from elongated naps hungry and angry all over again).
Being a new parent means having little or nothing in the way of perspective. Every day represents a new challenge, a new set of emergencies, and a new day of trying to figure out what constitutes an emergency and what is merely a challenge.
It rattles you, though, when you know that something you did on Thursday makes Thursday, Friday, and Saturday tough on the baby.
It is the first glimpse I have ever really had into the mind of the anti-vaccination crowd. It’s the first bit of real empathy with the potential horror involved.
Now, if one buys into the alleged link between vaccination and ill-effects, there’s really a “damned if you do” and “damned if you don’t” dynamic at work. On the one hand, vaccination presents a low likelihood of catastrophic consequence. On the other hand, refusing to vaccinate presents… a low likelihood of catastrophic consequence.
With this in mind, my thought has been that even if there is a link between autism and vaccinations, there is still a moral-social obligation to vaccinate due to the wider repercussions (although with a need to take care of those children of the parents that did the right thing and fell victim to the adverse consequence).
But watching the roller coaster of my baby changed my perspective. Suddenly, I understood the collective freakout over putting your baby under a needle and causing something horrendous. And I understood why this might outweigh the risk of not doing anything and yet having something else horrendous happen.
If I gave my little girl a vaccination, and it caused her to get autism, I don’t know that emotionally I would ever forgive myself. No matter how much my mind tells me it was the right risk to take, my heart would be crushed and would view it as something I did rather than something that happened.
Of course, there are two issues here. First, by virtue of my having married a doctor, there is simply no chance under any circumstances we would not vaccinate. Second, of course, there is nothing substantial to suggest that there is a connection between vaccination and autism or anything more serious than what we experienced.
My relationship with the medical establishment, and scientific establishment, is somewhat mixed. I am not an AGW-denialist or remotely skeptical of evolution in its broad strokes. But I also tend to think we know a lot less than we often credit ourselves with knowing. that includes medicine. I might have retained even more of this perspective if I hadn’t married a doctor.
But marry a doctor I did. And my skepticism – wherever it resides – is more esoteric than deeply ideological. Other than my reluctance to seek medical care, I operate on the basis that what we think is true should be treated as true. The notion that we should forgo vaccinations on the basis of possibly-incomplete knowledge doesn’t truck with me.
And the science on vaccinations has been clear.
I would be lying, though, if I said that a question from an irrational little voice wasn’t running through my mind. What if they’re wrong? What if they’re wrong?! What if they’re wrong?! If they’re wrong, I am signing up to poison my child.
Life-significant decisions – particularly when they affect others – cannot be made on the basis of “what if they’re wrong?” they simply can’t. I know this. My child will be vaccinated.
But if I, the husband of a doctor and a believer in modern society despite occasional crackpot uncertainty, have these thoughts running through my mind, I suddenly understand why con men like Wakefield make such headway. What if, despite all of the available evidence, he is right? Or what if, even if it isn’t autism, it’s something else we merely haven’t found yet. Fear, fear, fear.
All of which leads me to great despair. This little voice in my head cannot be externally reasoned with. There is no standard of proof that is sufficient to satisfy the question “But what if it is not so?” When it’s likely as not to be educated rather than uneducated communities that defy the evidence, how do you educate the irrational mind? In an age where we can choose our own facts by choosing our own sources, how do we maintain herd immunity?
Photo by Dr. Partha Sarathi Sahana