For the last several weeks, readers of the Sierra Sun have been treated to a lively debate on the subject of vaccination. What should have become apparent to those who have been following the debate is that it is not an argument based on the scientific merits of the two sides, but an argument of faith.
Like the debates about global warming and evolution, the vaccination controversy pits the “orthodox” or “mainstream” scientific community and its supporters against those who do not trust that community or accept its findings.
In each case, the mainstream community accuses non-believers of rejecting reason and scientific data, relying on the Internet and on pseudoscientists for their information, and cherry-picking or misinterpreting scientific data that supports their contentions. In every case, the nonbelievers accuse the mainstream of having an agenda, be it profit in the case of vaccination, the destruction of business in the case of climate change, or the destruction of religion in the case of evolution, so that any evidence in support of the mainstream is fatally tainted and cannot be believed.
In every case, the nonbelievers contend that there is a conspiracy within the mainstream to mislead the populace. An extreme example would be the murder of polio vaccinators in Pakistan.
What supporters of mainstream science, of which I am one, fail to recognize is that for most of us, science is a matter of faith. How many of us have conducted our own scientific research, read the original scientific papers, or can understand and describe the evidence supporting vaccination, global warming, or evolution?
We believe what we are told by those we trust — schools, newspaper and magazine articles, authority figures. In this way, our acceptance of mainstream science is just as much a matter of faith as is religion.
We also fail to recognize the damage the scientific community does to its own cause — overstating the evidence, ignoring discrepancies in the data, performing and publishing research supported by industry, and in some cases completely falsifying research.
For example, Darwin believed that evolution only occurs slowly and incrementally, while we now know that it often occurs in bursts due to sudden changes in the environment. We also fail to recognize that what was once scientific dogma is no longer accepted — for example, that stomach ulcers are caused by stress, when we now know they are caused by bacterial infection.
In the case of vaccination, those of us support it do our give support to vaccine deniers when we fail to acknowledge that there are side effects (my childhood eye doctor was paralyzed by an early polio vaccine) and that vaccines do not give perfect immunity — the influenza vaccine being a prime example.
These debates will not be resolved by reasoned argument by either side. The two sides talk past each other, and no amount of evidence will shake the faith of either side. Sometimes, the weight of personal observation changes minds; this appears to be happening to some extent in the global warming debate, as some politicians who previously denied climate change have grown to accept it.
The problem is more difficult when the merits of the mainstream position are not easily observable, as in the case of vaccination. The vaccination debate is particularly frustrating because the existence of a voluntarily non-vaccinated population does pose a threat to those who, despite Obamacare, do not have access to medical care, including vaccination, and to those with immune systems weakened by disease.
But perhaps all we can do at present is to understand that our arguments, no matter how rational we believe them to be, are unlikely to change anyone’s mind.
Jack Kashtan is a Truckee resident.