It’s Wrong and It’s Dangerous
I read Amanda Marcotte’s recent piece, Vaccination becomes a more partisan issue, with Republicans on the wrong side of it, despairingly. The only thing worse than someone trying to politicize ani-vaccine sentiment is someone doing it with a giant megaphone. With all due respect to the author, her piece has two giant flaws. First, its basic premise is wrong: anti-vax ideology is demonstrably not very well connected to basic left-right ideology or party affiliation. Second, her article is ironically more likely to be harmful than a dozen frothing anti-vax pieces.
Anti-Vax beliefs are not rooted in Republican beliefs and desires, as Marcotte suggests. She has a few reasons why she thinks so:
Purity: Marcotte thinks that anti-vax ideology “is rooted in irrational fears of impurity,” and that such fears are more common among conservatives. This is the most persuasive argument to me, because I’m inclined to think that irrational fears about purity are a big part of the anti-vax movement. But what we’re inclined to think is not necessarily what’s true, or even what’s likely to be true.
In fact, researchers have tested this assumption. There’s some legitimate dispute over the data, but the best that I’ve seen indicate that worry about vaccines comes more from a general sensitivity to risk, as opposed to “disgust sensitivity.” They looked at how much people worried about a variety of risks to see how well the fear of vaccines correlates to other fears. Some of those risks had some “purity” connection (like legalizing porn or prostitution), while others didn’t (like operating drones in US airspace or high-voltage power lines). Very generally, people who are worried about vaccines are likely to worry about everything, regardless of “purity.” That is, even people who were terrified of vaccines weren’t overall more likely to worry about prostitution or pornography being legalized.
This doesn’t prove that a concern over purity doesn’t motivate a lot of anti-vaccine sentiment. But when the data don’t support your intuition, it’s time to reexamine that intuition—especially when it’s telling you that people you don’t agree with are bad or stupid.
Children are property: Next, Marcotte argues that conservatives are less likely to “see children as individuals in their own right who deserve the protection of the commons,” and more likely to see them as “property.” The language is incredibly loaded, which should suggest this is not a careful analysis so much as a diatribe.
If you’re trying to understand someone’s perspective, you can’t stop halfway. You need to really try and see where they’re coming from. Anti-vaxers wouldn’t say that they want to evade vaccination because their kids are property. In my experience, they’re much more likely to agree that kids “deserve the protection” their parents or society can give them. They disagree about whether vaccines actually provide that protection.
To see how this argument trips over its own perspective, flip it around: anti-vaxers often make the same point. They say that pro-vaccine advocates see kids as a thing to be shot full of chemicals, rather than precious people who need to be protected from the neurotoxins in vaccines. Obviously the anti-vax position is bonkers… but logically, it relies on the same assumptions Marcotte is making: that we see kids as people, and they see kids as merchandise.
No. No one sees children as a thing. Everyone sees children as precious.
Hostility to public health: Here, Marcotte thinks conservative hostility to “anything that roots the concept of health care in the common good instead of treating it as an individual luxury” draws conservative hostility. Maybe she’s right! But I’m immediately dubious because this is also demonizing conservatives. I’d want to see some evidence, or at least an argument, that conservatives see vaccination as being somehow implicated in the battle over public health. Instead it’s just a rhetorical point, and again, one that goes both ways. She says that conservatives react badly to the idea that “the health care of the elite” should be different from “what the rabble gets”, but that implies that conservatives want “the rabble” to get sick. I’m a progressive myself, but come on—conservatives aren’t blinding peasants for fun. (Maybe in Texas.)
Even if we assume that conservatives only want the elite to get the best healthcare available, with no concern whatsoever for “the rabble,” that doesn’t imply they’d oppose vaccination. Vaccines protect everyone! If I were the richest man on earth, I’d want everyone to get fully vaccinated, even if I were an utter sociopath. It would protect me, effectively and very cheaply, through herd immunity. In this case, other people being healthy not only doesn’t pick the billionaire’s pocket or break his leg, it actively helps him. And it doesn’t cost very much compared to the massive good it does. Conservatives’ hostility to public healthcare just doesn’t lead one to believe they’d be hostile to vaccines generally.
Status signaling: This argument is based on the idea that being anti-vaccine is “a way to signal status.” And again, I agree up to a point. I do think that many anti-vaxers are anti-vaxers as a way to signal their affiliation with a particular peer group. But while Marcotte identifies that group as “the elite,” I think it’s much more subtle than that. People generally want to bind themselves to their friends and neighbors, not just “the elite.” Those groups could be based on wealth, or religion, or language, or micro-culture, or geography, or more likely a spicy blend of all of those things and more. In other words, when Harry Hypothetical opts out of vaccines to signal his belonging to a particular group, he’s trying to impress his neighbors or his book club rather than “the elite.” Those peer groups are likely to be evenly distributed across political lines.
How do I know? Well, I can’t be positive. But again, there’s some good research on this point. When researchers looked into the cultural affiliations of anti-vaxers, they found that “there is no meaningful correlation between vaccine risk perceptions and the sorts of characteristics that usually indicate membership in one or another cultural group.” Many people have a hard time believing this. But as I said before, when your intuitions don’t match the data, it’s probably your intuition that’s wrong.
Anti-science: Finally Marcotte says she “would argue that conservatism is inherently hostile to empiricism,” and that the “Republican Party is anti-science.” And again, I want to agree with her! But I know better. First, I know that writing off an entire party as “anti-science” isn’t doing anyone much good. And in particular, when it comes to vaccines, I know that the actual research doesn’t support this conclusion.
First, just above I cited a study showing that anti-vax ideology doesn’t map very well onto political ideology. But second, Marcotte is essentially arguing that being anti-vaccine comes from being anti-science. While I think that many anti-vax advocates show very poor scientific literacy, what’s true of a few loud mouths isn’t true of the body of people who resist vaccination. Most people who decline to get their kids vaccinated aren’t bloggers or celebrities or firebrands—they’re just trying to help their kids and quietly made a bad decision. And being science-literate is not a defense against making bad decisions. Research shows that “public opinion on the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines is not meaningfully affected by differences in either science comprehension or religiosity.” (The religiosity part isn’t strictly relevant here, but I was surprised that Marcotte didn’t attempt to make that point.)
I don’t want to pick on Amanda Marcotte. Everyone writes an occasional piece that misses the mark, and sooner or later, does so very badly. (I hope this one isn’t mine!) Sticking with the theme of mistakes being bi-partisan, Hank Campbell made the same errors from the right last year in his piece, Science Left Behind 2014: The Anti-Vaccination Update – Science 2.0. Campbell is just as polemical as Marcotte, if not moreso, and just as mistaken, if not moreso.
In particular, Campbell gets very huffy about the difference between Democrats and progressives. It’s not Democrats who are anti-vaccine, he says, just progressives. (You can actually see his lip curl as he writes “progressive.” (Not really.)) What’s the difference? Well, the data don’t support the conclusion that Democrats are generally anti-vaccine, or more anti-vax than Republicans. But progressives, well, Campbell wants to tell you all about those bums. ” Progressive thinking corresponds to anti-vaccination and even anti-GMO beliefs, which is why Washington state, Oregon and California are so prominent in the denial movement and New York State is less so.” But is that a fact, or just something he thinks should probably be a fact?
The research, once again, is not convenient for Campbell’s preferred beliefs. In fact, just like anti-vaccine beliefs, anti-GMO sentiment doesn’t track very well with party affiliation. “Of course,” I can imagine Campbell saying, “that’s why I demonized progressives and not Democrats.” But given how strong the correlation between party affiliation and risk sensitivity is for global warming and fracking, I’m not convinced the distinction makes a difference here. It would be strange for progressives to deviate from their flagship party on just these two issues! Ultimately, I can’t say it any better than Dan Kahan did: “In the case of global warming, left-right outlooks explain an ‘impressively large!‘ 42% of the variance. For GM food risks, political outlooks explain a humiliatingly small 2%…. But hey, don’t let facts get in the way if you want to keep ‘explaining’ why liberals are so worried about GM food risks!”
Aside from the fact that they’re factually wrong, Marcotte and Campbell are shooting
themselves—and the rest of us—in the foot. They both want vaccination rates to stay high. They should pay attention to whether their rhetoric helps achieve that goal or retards it.
I’ve already written about why it’s dangerous to politicize the vaccine debate, so let me quote myself:
It’s a dangerous notion that creates an ideological split where there wasn’t one before. Ironically I was writing about this just around the time Christie was making his comments. As I said then, and as Chris Mooney has since explained, the problem is recruitment. Right now, most people support vaccination and reject anti-vaccine talking points. (I know that can seem implausible, given how visible those hoary anti-science stories are online. But vaccination rates don’t lie—the vast majority of parents reject anti-vax scaremongering.) If we start drawing party lines on top of the vaccine debate, people will start to use their party affiliation to define their position on vaccines. They won’t realize they’re doing it. They’ll honestly think they’re making decisions about vaccines based on the facts. But they’ll be judging those facts based on the community they belong to, the way we all do. So we can’t let those communities be defined as anti-vax communities!
There’s some interesting research on this question. This is a little oversimplified, but basically researchers tested people to determine how concerned they were about risks from things like nuclear power, gun ownership, global warming, and vaccines. They could see how people clumped together or spread apart. Just like you’d expect, climate change and gun possession were divisive, with some people seeing them as very risky and others not so concerned. Vaccines weren’t like that—across the board, people were relatively unconcerned about the risk of vaccination.
Until the researchers showed people a fake editorial politicizing the vaccine debate. The article complained about “Michele Bachmann’s famously idiotic claim, made in a Republican Party presidential debate,” and compared comparing vaccine deniers to climate change deniers and creationists (much more politically-aligned debates). People who were exposed to this article became polarized. Those who were slightly more “anti-vaccine” lost confidence in vaccination and started to overestimate the risk of vaccines compared to the control group. Remember that the variable here is exposure to an article criticizing anti-vaxers. The result was to make more anti-vaxers.
The vaccine debate is mostly about parents who are considering the issue for the first time, and/or aren’t completely persuaded one way or the other. (The large majority of people who are sold on vaccines don’t need the debate; the small number of committed anti-vaxers aren’t likely to be persuaded.) Those people will pick sides if you give them enough reason to. Attacking them for being hesitant will do it, but so will attacking people they respect and admire. Also, defining a politician or party as “anti-vax” just signals to people who identify with that person or group that it’s OK to be anti-vax. So for someone who hasn’t been exposed to the debate, letting it get politicized will both make it easier to pick sides and encourage them to do so. We want them deciding based on sound medical advice, not political affiliation—so don’t politicize the debate.
Finally, while I know Marcotte probably didn’t choose the image for her piece herself, and it’s a lot better than many illustrations, it’s not ideal. Glendon Mellow has written about illustrating stories about vaccines with honking big needles and crying babies isn’t good science communication. Marcotte’s article comes under a large photo of an injection, which may be offputting to people who are nervous about shots. I doubt she chose the picture, but we have some precedent for getting such images changed. Vaccination is about protecting children, and images of happy babies are more representative than just shots of shots.
Ultimately, Marcotte and Campbell and I all want the same thing: as many kids as possible as healthy as possible. We should be measuring our own rhetoric against one standard: is it probably going to make it easier or harder to achieve that goal? Demonizing the opposition doesn’t help. It may get people fired up, but that’s not what we’re here to do and it may be counterproductive. Fiery rhetoric is especially harmful when it’s wrong, as Marcotte’s and Campbell’s pieces are.
Almost all parents vaccinate. Those who don’t aren’t mostly Republican or Democrat or religious or atheist or any other easily-defined category. They’re just people. They want their kids to be healthy and happy, and made a terrible mistake in trying to get there. Demonizing them, or using them to demonize your political opponents, doesn’t help. Please stop.