Vaccination, Prejudice and the Wisdom of the Crowd

It’s human nature to follow popular opinion. We want to belong, we want to be part of something. Sometimes it can mean that a certain belief or practice is a good thing to do. Of course, our tendency to follow the crowd can develop into prejudice, fear and hatred- all of which can lead to violence that becomes socially sanctioned. We don’t need to look far into history find examples of this- the Ku Klux Klan in the American South, the Nanking Massacre during World War II, and the Holocaust are all examples where the blessing and encouragement of the crowd fueled by fear or feelings of superiority led people to to commit atrocities that darken the history of humanity. We face a similar dynamic today with vaccination.

Maybe you’ve seen some of the comments circulating on the internet. People who don’t vaccinate their children or follow alternative schedules should have their children taken away, be moved to an island where they can all die from vaccine preventable diseases together, etc. One time a good friend of mine shared a blog post on Facebook about how parents have been deceived by Andrew Wakefield. One of her friends commented that people who don’t vaccinate their children are worse than bio-terrorists. How charitable. Of course most people consider these comments hurtful but perfectly acceptable because vaccination is so crucial to human survival that people who choose not vaccinate or do not vaccinate according to the established schedules are a supreme threat and any means necessary is acceptable to make them conform to accepted norms.

Some unkind words are exchanged, but is that all? Prejudice against minority groups often starts with these sorts of justifications. In the American south, it was said that black teenagers would corrupt the moral purity of white teenagers so the racial integration of high schools should be fought by any means necessary. During World War II, American citizens of Japanese descent were said to be a security threat to the entire nation and were thus confined to internment camps. Under Communist regimes in Europe and Asia, people were sent to prison camps for being too educated or saying negative things about government officials. This was said to be necessary for the greater good of the country because such people would undermine the beneficent iron hand of totalitarianism.

In fact the medical and public health communities have encouraged a dangerous attitude that meets most of the criteria for a failure of crowd intelligence:

  • Homeogenity- James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, cites a lack of diversity of opinions as a crucial factor in whether a crowd acts responsibly or irrationally. The CDC, AMA, and APA have all been vocally critical of any views of vaccination that diverge in any way from the ones they have set forth. Even doctors like Robert Sears who are very pro-vaccination but advocate for a different schedule of vaccination have been labelled as dangerous. Research that shows risks for vaccination is discredited while research that shows vaccination as being safe and beneficial is accepted regardless of conflicts of interest or errors in data analysis.
  • Centralization- Surowiecki points out the need for information to come from multiple sources and not just one or a few entities. Right now the only information about vaccination that is considered accurate comes from public health and medical organizations who advocate for the current vaccination schedules. Input from health professionals who believe vaccination could be harmful or that certain shots are not necessary is considered irrelevant and dangerous and discredited. This means that most of the information that parents receive comes not from several independent resources that have all found the same thing, but rather a close-knit group of organizations who have ties to the pharmaceutical manufacturers who make the vaccines.
  • Imitation- He also warns of the dangers of “information cascades” where people do as others have done before despite any contradictions or personal information they have that indicates that the way of the crowd may not best. When this sort of copying is rewarded and encouraged, many individuals abandon reason and rational judgement to do as others do. This is frequently seen amongst parents whose child had serious reaction to a vaccine, like a seizure or period of prolonged screaming and then go and vaccinate again. A woman I know vaccinated her daughter at two months and the little girl screamed for several hours afterwards. She went ahead with the vaccination schedule and had her daughter vaccinated again at four months. Following that round of shots, the baby had a febrile seizure and vomiting and had to be rushed to the emergency room. Even after that, she continued to vaccinate her daughter according to schedule. This phenomenon can also be seen with physicians and researchers who acknowledge the deficiencies and dangers of vaccination, but continue to insist that the practice is crucial to preserving health. (For one example, refer back to the measles post for a link to the research paper which stated that measles encephalitis is on the decline amongst unvaccinated individuals and on the rise amongst vaccinated individuals, but still maintains the measles vaccine is necessary and safe.) Imitation and conformity are also why you usually won’t hear doctors departing from any vaccination protocols set forth by medical and public health entities. They simply assume that because they heard it in medical school it must be true. (Where would the practice of medicine be today if no one ever questioned what they learned in medical school?)
  • Emotionality- Emotional factors such as fear and the desire to belong can lead to peer pressure, the herd mentality and collective hysteria. Vaccination is an extremely emotionally charged subject. Few people are really able to step back and take a look at evidence concerning vaccination because of the fear associated with disease and the lack of acceptance associated with individuals who choose not to vaccinate. Discussions about potential problems of vaccination often devolve very quickly into the sorts of name calling mentioned in the introduction to this post.  Even information from the CDC often contains exaggerations about the potential threat of diseases and the efficacy of the shots. Of course the irony is that most people think that because they are taking a pro-vaccination stance they are being scientific, regardless of how emotional they get in discussing the subject.

The reality is that many people are willing to suspend choice and the free flow of information in the name of disease prevention. But if we are so quick to shut out opposing information because of fear, we are following deception. Science has never been founded on conformity, but rather on examination of divergent views. Embrace it!

 

 

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