Much to the surprise of no one who was paying attention in science class, diseases that were once mostly under control are now experiencing a dramatic upswing, thanks to the efforts of the anti-vaccine movement in sowing hysteria and misinformation about products that have already been through a lengthy and vigorous examination of their safety and efficacy. How could such a thing happen in “enlightened” Western civilization? The answer is complex, but part of the problem stems from our cultural post-modernism. Rejection of science goes hand-in-hand with rejection of the idea that any kind of objective truth really exists.
Part of this cultural post-modernism comes from a misunderstanding of free speech. We are all equally entitled to express our opinions, and some people think that means all opinions are equally valid. If there were such a thing as objective truth, then some opinions (the ones that were consistent with the truth) would be more valid than others (those that weren’t). But calling some opinions better than others is “elitist” and un-American. Can’t be having that!
From there it’s just a small step to “my opinions are better (for me)” or even just “my opinions are better.” In the presumed absence of objective truth, and even given the presumption that all opinions are equal, people will assume that their own opinions are the best opinions. Why would anyone hold an opinion that was less than the best? My opinions are important because I am important, at least in my own eyes. Voicing and promoting the validity and superiority of my own opinions is how I my own validity and superiority as a person.
That’s why, if I’m going to be an anti-vaccine denialist, I’ll gladly presume that my own opinions, informed by hearsay, hucksters, and health fads, are more important and more reliable than decades of scientific research and verified, repeatable results. We, as a culture, have ceased to believe in the real existence of any authoritative standard of truth beyond our own preferences and political pull, and so we feel entitled to demonstrate the rightness of our opinions simply by how loudly we demand respect.
The consequences of this attitude, unfortunately, are all too real, and can be counted in small coffins. We, as a nation, will never counter this destructive influence if we continually reinforce it by deferring to the perverted principle that says all opinions are equally valid and everybody creates their own “truth.” We need to stand up for the essential truth that some opinions are based on fact and some—most—are not. Some answers, no matter how fervently or sincerely held, are wrong at best, and possibly downright destructive.
In the case of vaccines, we need to tell people that they can believe what they like, but the scientific facts are not negotiable. It is just as irresponsible to send an unvaccinated child to school or day care as it would be to send them with a bag of crack cocaine or a loaded gun. You can choose to believe lies and ignorance if you prefer, but when your actions have a demonstrable negative impact on those around you, the rest of us need to draw the line and insist that you act responsibly even if your beliefs are irresponsible.
There is a time and a place for compromise, but this is not that time and place.