There is absolutely no question in my mind that those who refuse to vaccinate their children against diseases like measles and whooping cough love their children just as much as those who do vaccinate. Pretty big of me, eh? But seriously, to a first approximation, parents love their kids, end of story. If they refuse to inoculate them, it’s because they doubt the effectiveness and/or safety of vaccines. But while such parents may see themselves as skeptics, they are in fact too credulous by half.
When I first heard about the claim that vaccines might cause autism, several years ago, I looked into it with an open mind. I am a big fan of questioning things, and especially of challenging the powers that be. When it comes to public health issues, I personally find it pretty easy to believe that the people in charge of health agencies are overly conservative in approving beneficial drugs, for instance, because they want to cover their asses. I find it easy, also, to believe that the people who run drug companies want to use the patent system to make as much money as possible from the sale of their products. Of course they do.
But the alleged vaccine-autism link, I discovered, grew out of a thoroughly discredited study of just a handful of kids. It persisted in the public imagination because the onset of symptoms of autism happens around the time that children are vaccinated, but this is mere correlation, and epidemiological studies have not found any causal link. As for effectiveness, on the other hand, there is a clear and well-established causal link between mass vaccinations and the virtual eradication of numerous diseases—with recent resurgences caused in turn by falling vaccination rates among doubters.
A good skeptic does not automatically believe whatever the mainstream believes, but neither does a good skeptic rush to believe an online article stumbled upon that one time that cast aspersions on the motives of every single person working in the pharmaceutical industry or in a health agency. “Follow the money” is not, by itself, a good enough argument for believing anything. There are plenty of honest ways to make a living, so specific reasons are needed for believing that everyone involved in the production and sale and administration of vaccines is either corrupt or stupid. If you don’t have the scientific chops yourself, not to mention a decent grasp of statistics, why would you bet your children’s health, and even their very lives, on such a marginal suspicion?
Without assuming that everyone is moral or that they don’t face perverse incentives, I nonetheless find it extremely difficult to believe that very many people want to make money by harming others, or that they would be capable of doing so through a massive conspiracy spanning decades and even centuries. Based on what I’ve read, I’m convinced that vaccines are effective and safe, and that they have been a great boon to humanity. Furthermore, the onus is on “skeptics” to prove that the well-established mainstream theory is wrong, something they have utterly failed to do. If one hasn’t done the research and doesn’t have the knowledge base to be absolutely sure that the entire medical profession is mistaken, it is not skepticism to simply assert and believe the opposite of a theory that has stood the test of time.
Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.