Back-to-school report: just the vax, m'am

Maybe because it’s almost back-to-school time, but vaccinations are in the news on my blogroll.  Pal MD has an unintentionally hillarious post about some scandalously stupid reportage on a so-called “victim” of Gardasil.  (Longtime readers will recall that support for inoculation/vaccination are just about the only thing that Historiann has in common with Cotton Mather!) 

She reports that she went to the ER and was told she was likely having a stroke, and was sent home to return if it got worse. Now, I realize we’re getting third-hand information, but a reporter is supposed to clarify this. No one who goes to the hospital with a “stroke” is sent home to see if it gets worse.

Uhm, wouldn’t a real reporter dump the lady boo-hooing about her off-label use of Gardasil, and instead, you know, figure out which local hospital is sending home people suffering from strokes?  Now that’s a man-bites-dog story if I’ve ever heard one!  Just go read the whole thing to feel teh stupid and how it burns.  He’s got another recent post about how people with medical degrees need to take back vaccination education, instead of leaving it to the cranks, the quacks, and the religiously insane anti-vaxers.

And speaking of quacks and cranks, our friend Knitting Clio (who is not herself a crank or a quack at all) reported last week that her friendly neighborhood chiropractor–who has been of great assistance with her back pain–is now giving helpful seminars in local tea-shops about the dangers of vaccination.  She writes about the hazards of this woo-peddling:  “Take Colorado [ed. note please!], where the rate of vaccination (75%) is below what is needed for herd immunity.  Between 1996 and 2005, 208 adults and 32 children in Colorado died of diseases that could most likely have been prevented by vaccinations. The state spends millions of dollars per year caring for children and adults with diseases such as pertussis (whooping cough), influenza, and measles that could have been prevented by vaccination.”  (Side note:  why do chiropractors hate the vax?  I’ve seen and heard of it before, but what’s the reason for it?)

The struggle over knowledge about vaccination is a cautionary tale about the dangers of professional complacency in the face of overwhelming success.  This is a paradox:  when an evidence-based consensus emerges within a profession and there are no professionals who truly disagree with the consensus in the main, that’s when movements propelled by outsiders (but legitimized by disgruntled or marginalized insiders) feel emboldened to challenge the consensus.  It’s not just primary-care physicians who have to worry about this–it’s also anthropologists and biologists, whose professional knowledge of Charles Darwin and the significance of his theories have been vigorously challenged by people outside of universities and without any professional credentials.  Historians also have had strange ideological struggles emerge out of what was a well-documented consensus on the facts of, for example, the Holocaust, the causes of the U.S. American Civil War, and the history and meaning of the Confederate flag. 

In all of these cases, a hardy band of conspiracy-minded and/or magical thinkers was able to gin up enough popular support to convince other neutral observers that there might be a scholarly “controversy” where none in fact existed among the actual scholars.  Does this happen because there are a few determined cranks and quacks still inside each profession, and they’re just very good at finding allies outside the profession because they no longer have allies within?  Or do political movements seize upon those few disaffected professionals, flattering them and giving them an appreciative audience so that they’ll serve as scholarly figureheads?  In all of these cases, it seems that there are a few professionals who are willing to sign on to provide a “respectable” face to the fake controversy–David Irving in the case of Holocaust denial, for example, or Michael Behe for “Intelligent” Design?  These credentialed intellectuals were happy to provide a presentable face to deeply disreputable, and even dangerous, ideas. 

Fight the woo, within and without your profession, and remember that things like “evidence” and “overwhelming scholarly consensus” mean nothing if we don’t continue to explain exactly what the evidence is and what the consensus means.

0 thoughts on “Back-to-school report: just the vax, m'am

  1. Don’t get me started on anti-vaccination quacks! I’m tired of people telling me that my daughter has autism due to her vaccinations. (They’re wrong!)

    Chiropractors tend to this stand in large numbers, having some in their ranks who believe everything can be healed through manipulations (adding in a little homeopathy for extra bonus points of anti-science).

    One of the best explanations of this trend amongst some chiropractors is at Chirobase:


  2. Janice–thanks for commenting on this. I’m sure it must be very painful and irritating to cope with the anti-vaxers as the parent of an autistic child. (Although, I’m sure you can probably understand in ways others can’t the desire to find a single, avoidable cause of the condition.) I hope your daughter has access to the therapy she needs. One of the things I rather like about allopathic medicine and most MDs themselves is that they don’t fall for the single-cause, single-solution false simplicity that seems to drive so many non-evidence based theories and schools of thought (like some chiropractors, as you point out.) The fact is that while a lot of therapies and drugs work for a lot of people, they don’t work for all of them, and usually not in the same way, and most MDs are very committed to finding anything that works for their patients. But it’s very seductive to think that there are single causes for people’s miseries (environmental toxins, wheat gluten, the MMR vaccine, etc.) and therefore also single cures (manipulation, homoeopathy, miracle diets, etc.)

    Thanks for the link about the chiropractors–I’ll check that out.


  3. Hey, that pic looks like me, seconds before I grabbed Dr. Ammerman (my mother’s sainted pediatrician) by his $250 Panama silk shirt and shredded it down to his navel! Unavailingly, too, I must say, because the needle went in anyway, as did a whole lot of others. Authority was authority in those days, and so was professional oblige, I guess, because we didn’t even get billed for the shirt, which would have bought a small house on Long Island back then! The democratical and populist revolts of the past half century have the downsides of their upsides. Not much deference happens whenever a contrarian notion goes viral. I would probably switch the order of the last sentence to: “explain what the term ‘evidence’ *means* and then what the particular consensus *is*…” because it’s really an epistemological divide that’s out there now.

    I googled Dr. Ammerman once to see if he was really the legend in the culture that he was in our household, but he doesn’t have a Wiki page or anything like that. And I did hack through a horrific summer with the whooping cough as an adolescent, come to think of it, so maybe I DID fight off one of those shots!


  4. Great post. As I read it, I thought about the other conspiracy theorists, who tend to denigrate our knowledge as historians. My own pet peeve is the Shakespeare authorship crowd, who manage to get uncritical coverage by saying “It’s not possible. . .” And part of the problem is that historians and literary scholars have done a bad job of explaining why we think it is possible. How do we assess evidence? Why do we think some evidence is more compelling than others? Etc. (Bardiac had a great series of posts on this a few weeks ago, responding to an NPR series that made my blood boil!) It’s hard not to sound snotty about things like this, but jeez, I did spend a lot of time in school learning stuff!


  5. Susan–I should have thought to include the fake “Oxford” controversy, too! I heard that on NPR and thought it would really fry you.

    I thought about you last week at the Mark Twain house. The brief movie overview of his life (and the house) suggested to me that Twain is really the American Shakespeare–not just because of their stature as foundational authors of the national literature, but also because of his completely untutored childhood and career as an adventurer, newspaperman, and self-taught writer. But because many Americans believe in the “natural genius” of our national character, and because Twain’s time was a time when many men rose from obscure origins to great fame and wealth, we believe Twain’s life and career possible. But because many people see the sixteenth century as hopelessly ancient, and English/British society as class-bound from time immemorial, many can’t accept that Shakespeare was actually Shakespeare.


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