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Consequences

by Steven Novella, Apr 25 2011

There is another major measles outbreak in Europe. The WHO reports:

The World Health Organization said Thursday that France had 4,937 reported cases of measles between January and March – compared with 5,090 cases during all of 2010. In all, more than 6,500 cases have been reported in 33 European nations.

That is four times the rate of 2010. I know – these reports are almost getting boring. The shock has worn off – we have come to accept that previously conquered diseases (at least reduced to minimal cases without outbreaks) have come back. The cause seems clear – outbreaks occur where herd immunity has been lost due to vaccine non-compliance. Fewer people are getting vaccinated, and not much fewer. But the numbers are falling below herd immunity levels in pockets. When vaccination rates fall below a certain level, then infectious organisms are able to spread and cause an outbreak.

The anti-vaccine movement has successfully spread unwarranted fear of vaccines, resulting in the compromise of herd immunity. There is a toll of morbidity and mortality associated with this movement.

Part of the challenge in raising public awareness about the dangers of pseudoscience and denialism is that the public rapidly become inured to the consequences, even complacent. When I saw this latest report about another measles outbreak, I had to think carefully before deciding to blog about it. I have blogged about outbreaks before, and there is nothing new with yet another measles outbreak. Will my readers be bored? It is hard to sustain outrage – things like unnecessary measles outbreaks become old news with a waning grasp on our collective attention.

So it is useful, from time to time, to remind ourselves and the public that there are consequences to nonsensical and irrational beliefs, and to placing ideology above science and evidence. We live in an increasingly complex civilization, with vexing problems that require more and more clever and elaborate solutions. It’s not easing supporting over 6 billion people (and growing) on this world, while feeding them all and avoiding the endemic problems of a large population – minimizing infectious diseases, limiting our footprint on the natural world, providing enough energy and other resources, and not killing each other over access to limited resources.

Our best tool in achieving our goals and solving the difficult problems of civilization is science – taking an objective, evidence-based approach to our problems so that we can work out the most effective solutions. Pseudoscience, denialism, and ideology are the enemies of science and reason, and therefore frustrate our attempts to find optimal solutions.

Think about the billions that are being wasted on useless or even harmful medical interventions because the science of medicine is being compromised, by clever marketing, corporate greed, by rank pseudoscience, by the infiltration of sectarian belief systems into what should be a science-based endeavor. I see this every day – and yes, my outrage is blunted. I almost chuckle to myself when I see someone become aware of the extent and nature of the problem for the first time – their fresh outrage strikes me as naive. But it is preferable to the “shruggies” who are not even aware of the problem.

Our most precious resource, arguably, is the human intellect. And that is being dulled by organized and well-funded movements to water down the teaching of science and critical thinking, because it conflicts with personal belief systems like creationism. It is impossible to tease out all the cultural effects that conspire together to hamper the intellect – anti-scientific ideology, anti-intellectual culture, politics, low standards in the educational system, and simple apathy. They all work together and reinforce each other.

Despite the strides the skeptical movement has made in the last decade, I am still frequently asked why I waste my time with the whole skepticism thing. There are many reasons, but perhaps chief among them is the understanding that pseudoscience and quackery have consequences – increasingly dire consequences, for the individual, for any society, and for human civilization. Measles outbreaks are only the tip of the iceberg. The skeptical movement endeavors to be a force in the other direction – to make the world a more rational place, to increase the level of critical thinking , and to keep science in its rightful place as the best method for understanding the world and finding practical solutions to our many problems.

There is also a certain love and respect for truth and intellectual honesty for its own sake. But knowing that beliefs have consequences is a huge motivating force.

Like Sagan, I would rather know the truth than believe in a comforting delusion. And I also recognize that as a civilization, we can no longer afford the comforting delusions. They have consequences.

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31 Responses to “Consequences”

  1. I did a post on antivaxers and I got a lot of “meh, who even believes in that antivax stuff anymore?”

    Enough that diseases like measles and polio are making quite the comeback is the answer, but I think a lot of rational people have just given up on people who have bought the antivaxer’s claims wholesale. Why even bother arguing with idiots, amirite?

    Which I’d even agree with, except it’s their children who suffer.

  2. Mario says:

    Well is unbelievable stupid to let people die just because a boogieman kind of story is preventing them to vaccinate children, apparently no amount of data and studies will convince this wackos of how wrong they are.

    Even people that most of the time I consider quite logic fall for this massive hysteria; like Bill Maher, he gets very emotional when it comes to talk about alternative medicine and vaccines and abandon reason for beliefs; and this is the guy that made Religulous.

    We Physicians tend to forget that we are not scientists therefore we should stick to what the consensus of data shows, and vaccines and condoms safety and is a clear example of transgression of that rule, I really feel ashamed when a colleague talk nonsense just because he or she believes something.

    Definitely pseudoscience and religion are by far one of the leading causes of preventable deaths. So Thanks for the blog.

  3. Like Sagan I’d rather have a joint than joint pain.

  4. Thanks for the reminder and great post by the way. I’m looking forward to your appearance on the Dr. Oz show. Hope you don’t get edited all to hell…

  5. Max says:

    What if public awareness of some truths has negative consequences, like Darwinism leading to Social Darwinism, rejection of free will leading to irresponsibility, and (hypothetical?) racial differences in intelligence leading to discrimination?

    • Somite says:

      I would argue in each of those cases the social outcome is a misinterpretation of the scientific findings. Humans are special in that there can be, and in these cases there should be, a disconnect between what happens in nature and the model society should adopt.

  6. PoonofWug says:

    So hit the problem of woo at the root cause and counter childhood indoctrination with childhood education. Empower the youngsters with the tools of skepticism and critical thinking and it seems that the silliness will fade within several generations. It’s incredibly hard to change the ingrained beliefs of the multitude.

  7. nick Stewart says:

    I read this hoping for some facts and figures but found none. Can someone just cut the waffle and tell me exactly WHY vaccination for measles is so important? How many die from it? Against the numbers for reactions to the vaccine? Please.

  8. Chris Howard says:

    Keep on doing so. I regularly link my Facebook to your health/pseudoscience blog, and many of my friends, who were once in the grip of anti-vaccers, are now questioning the claims. It’s excellent work, so please do not stop.

    In an entirely unrelated subject, I don’t know if you’re aware, but you were quoted, and link provided from Gizmodo to your piece on the FBI UFO smoking gun memo.
    A lot of very healthy debate was generated over that, on Giz’s site.

  9. whitedevil says:

    One of the plusses of living in Japan is that public health is taken seriously here. My Japanese doctor friends can’t believe that the US is headed down the road to mass epidemics again.

  10. paul barry says:

    Is there a reason why France has an increase in measles?

    Are they influenced by Wakefield’s B.S this far down the road?
    Certainly Jenny McCarthy couldn’t be responsible. Could English and American nonsense be that influential in vaccine rates in France?

  11. Robo Sapien says:

    “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.” -Dark Helmet

    “Dumb will always triumph because smart is good.” -Robo Sapien

  12. erikthebassist says:

    @nick stewart – the only thing worse than a troll is a lazy troll. A 2 second google search returned this: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs286/en/

    • nick Stewart says:

      Ok, I did some “lazy” research and came up with this on Bloomberg Business week in the posts at bottom of page – I’ve conflated several replies:

      “One vaccination costs $11, and $8 of it goes into a fund to pay for injuries and deaths from the vaccinations! I call that pretty risky. I know people personally that have long-term health problems from the toxins in vaccinations! Mercury! Formaldehyde! Aluminum! Antifreeze! 2-Phenoxyethanol! Phenol! Methanol! Borax! Glutaraldehyde! MSG! Aborted human foetal tissue and human albumin! This is only about HALF of the toxins in vaccinations! Research these ingredients and see for yourself how they affect the human body … if you want to continue to allow the big pharmaceutical companies continue to make gain off of risking your own and your childs health, and the governement force you to inject your bodies with chemicles you obviously are not fully educated on, then feel free. Less than 200 people died in the UNITED STATES between 1954 to 1963. In FACT, measles mortality was on the decline well before the vacicne was introduced.
      http://safershots.wordpress.com/2008/09/10/the-media-is-lying-to-you-about-measles/

      In FACT, the MMR vaccine has killed 185 people according the VAERS govt. reporting site, which is shown to report only about 10% of adverse reacitons. In FACT, over 2000 people had an adverse reaciton to the MMR in the last year alone (remember it is groosly under reported).
      The measles virus has no higher risk of death in a well nourished child. Most mortality rates from measles are caused by insufficient nutrition, poor sanitaiton, or immune compromised children”.

      • satan augustine says:

        “Mercury! Formaldehyde! Aluminum! Antifreeze! 2-Phenoxyethanol! Phenol! Methanol! Borax! Glutaraldehyde! MSG! Aborted human foetal tissue and human albumin!”

        Sorry, but I’m going to have to call bullshit here. None of these substances are in vaccines. MSG? Antifreeze? You cannot possibly seriously believe that this substances would be used in vaccines. Right?! MSG is a flavor enhancer used in many soups and in snacks like Doritos. There is no reason why they would use them in vaccines. Antifreeze is a known poison with a sweet taste to it, but again, no reason to use it in a vaccine. Mercury, no.

        If you have any scientific evidence to back up these ridiculous claims then I’d really like to see it.

        RE: your comment below, could you give some of these “reasonable” antivax positions and what makes them reasonable. Thus far, the antivax movement appears to be based on bad science from a man with an agenda (money) dressed up in the usual conspiracy theory accoutrements.

      • Max says:

        Some of the mentioned ingredients are in some vaccines, but others, like antifreeze, are an anti-vax canard.
        Here are the MMR ingredients: Amino Acid, Bovine Albumin or Serum, Chick Embryo Fibroblasts, Human
        Serum Albumin, Gelatin, Glutamate, Neomycin, Phosphate Buffers, Sorbitol, Sucrose, Vitamins

    • nick Stewart says:

      I really have no position to defend here other than being skeptical of most vested interests – including your own. What’s clear is that there are perfectly reasonable pro and anti positions out there and it is difficult to unpick them without a lot of confusion.

      • MadScientist says:

        There is no reasonable anti-vax position. Just visit any third-world nation with poor vaccination rates to see for yourself. Polio, measles, whooping cough, Hepatitis B – the list goes on and on. Well, except for the smallpox which had been eradicated years ago thanks to a few very dedicated people and vaccines. In extremely rare cases a particular vaccine may be contraindicated for a person. In very rare cases a particular vaccine may cause some terrible reactions in an individual. However, overall the vaccines prevent an awful lot more pain and suffering than they ever cause with the occasional side-effect.

  13. Kenneth Polit says:

    How about a direct approach to the antivax nonsense? Just a simple slogan that sums up the situation in a format that anyone can understand.
    Like this: Vaccinate your child or be prepared to bury it.

  14. Max says:

    Fear mongering.

  15. Max says:

    http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/RPI-student-measles-case-rare-in-the-U-S-1385038.php

    “The undergraduate student who contracted measles is one of only 10 students at RPI with a waiver exempting him from the measles vaccine.
    State law requires college students to be inoculated for measles but allows for medical and religious exemptions.
    About 99.9 percent of RPI’s students are immunized, Lawrence said.
    Most exemptions are granted for religious reasons, Lawrence said. Few RPI students seek waivers because the science-minded students understand benefits of immunization, he said.”