Amy Wallace’s essay “An Epidemic of Fear,” published in this month’s issue of Wired, is both perceptive and worrying. Wired’s articles often comment on the growing debates between social groups and professional communities. This month’s feature focuses on the conflict between anti-vaccination proponents—mainly parents—and the scientific community that contends they are necessary.
Wallace’s essay, while offering some sympathy to parents, argues heavily in support of the scientific community. Unfortunately, her view also creates worries about parental rights.
Consider Wallace’s comments about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children:
In certain parts of the US, vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children’s diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time ever. And the number of people who choose not to vaccinate their children (so-called philosophical exemptions are available in about 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and much of the West) continues to rise. In states where such opting out is allowed, 2.6 percent of parents did so last year, up from 1 percent in 1991, according to the CDC. In some communities, like California’s affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco, non-vaccination rates are approaching 6 percent (counterintuitivly, higher rates of non-vaccination often correspond with higher levels of education and wealth).
The figures sound alarming. Wallace provides reasons for us to believe that vaccination exemptions result in serious health concerns for both specific individuals and larger communities. The issue, however, is garbled amidst Wallace’s concern that parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated are doing so on irrational grounds—even though, as Wallace points out, the majority of parents abstaining from vaccinations live in more highly educated communities. Yet she says that naysayers oppose vaccinations because of fear and “unmet need,” as opposed to scientific evidence or reasonable doubt. She adds:
…Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. “A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” [Carl] Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”
Wallace’s attention to the motivations underlying parents’ objections to vaccinations does not cohere with her primary thesis that vaccinations are necessary. Furthermore, her comment that these objections are a result of fear and irrationality is not far removed from the kind of remarks Sigmund Freud makes in his Civilization and It’s Discontents. He writes, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it, we cannot dispense with palliative measures.” Like Freud, Wallace implies that parents are trying to assuage their fears using superstitious means. This line of thought implies that our unmet fears and needs are irrational, and so the direction in which we point our fears and needs is unjustifiable.
Of course, we cannot deny—nor should we—that we are liable to hold beliefs that are not wholly logical. Wallace’s position, however, not only has the capacity to generate more fear among anti-vaccine proponents, but it also has the capacity to undermine parental rights. If she argues that parents who object to the scientific community about vaccinations are irrational, perhaps they should not be allowed the freedom to choose not to have their children vaccinated.
Yet the fact that fear exists among parents does not imply the absence of reason. With all the controversies surrounding treatments, as well as updated information about side-effects and the rise of medical information available online, parents are justified in questioning scientific authority. By dismissing parents’ concerns as illogical, Wallace feeds this distrust. Respect goes both ways. If the scientific community is truly a bulwark of logic and reason, it should seek to bridge the gap between parents and doctors by effectively communicating about the challenges and controversies regarding science and medicine. Furthermore, if Wallace wants to convince parents that the scientific community should be trusted, she will also seek to bridge this gap, instead of engendering more doubt. ‘