For those of you who haven’t heard the term, “woo” is a word used by materialists and skeptics to describe practices whose justification is based on superstitious or mystical rationales. From Orac:
If I had to boil it down, I’d define woo as beliefs that clearly demonstrate magical thinking, uncritical acceptance of things for which no good evidence exists. This includes, but is not limited to, psychic phenomenon, ghosts, the paranormal, “energy healing,” the use of “colon cleansing” and “liver cleansing” to rid oneself of “toxins,” homeopathy (especially quantum homeopathy), and a wide variety of other mystical and pseudoscientific beliefs. Woo is resistant to reason. Indeed, woo has a double standard when it comes to what it considers to be good evidence. It is very accepting of a wide variety of fuzzy, mystical ideas, but is often incredibly distrustful and skeptical of anything having to do with “conventional” science or “conventional” medicine. Woos tend to be very quick to react to defend their particular brand of woo and very unforgiving of its being questioned.
Last year, Chris Mooney, another science writer who focuses on the intersection of science and politics published The Republican Brain, in which he discusses how conservatives are more likely than liberals to deny well established scientific facts. That liberals are more “scientific” than conservatives is a truism that floats around leftward leaning circles and is embodied by expressions like “the reality based community” and “the truth has a well-known liberal bias.” However there is one area in which those who deny established science are more likely to be on the left than on the right, and that area is health. One area of health where the science is clear but people deny it is the subject of vaccinations.
Why seemingly educated people deny the efficacy of vaccines, exaggerate their risks, or both is something that has always puzzled me. In this month’s Harper’s Eula Biss makes a good stab at answering the question. There’s always something speculative about the answer to the question why, but I found Biss’s article, “Sentimental Medicine“, to be thought-provoking and insightful.
Biss’s first exposure to this subject occurred with her pregnancy when she started to research the question with regard to her own child. A comment she makes early in the article put me in mind of a PBS Frontline documentary that aired a couple of years ago.
When I asked the pediatrician what the purpose of the hep B vaccine was, he answered, “That’s a very good question,” in a tone I understood to mean this was a question he relished answering. Hep B was a vaccine for the inner city, he told me – it was designed to protect the babies of drug addicts and prostitutes. It was not something, he assured me, that people like me needed to worry about.
She goes on to note that what the doctor knew about her at that point was mainly what he could see. This immediately put me in mind of the mother in the PBS documentary, a writer from Ashland Oregon, who asks, “Why am I supposed to vaccinate my newborn baby against a sexually transmitted disease?” Later in the article, Biss addresses this directly. Shortly after the birth of her son, she had to have a blood transfusion.
Risk, in the case of hep B, turns out to be a rather complicated assessment. There is risk in having sex with just one partner, getting a tattoo, or traveling to Asia. In many caes, the source of infection is never known. I decided before my son’s birth that I did not want him vaccinated for hep B, but it did not occur to me until months later that although I did not belong to any risk groups at the moment he was born by the time I put him to my breast I had received a blood transfusion and my status had changed.
Biss is especially insightful when she discusses how we imagine our bodies. Most of us imagine them as separate entities, not as connected to a larger community. A pursuit of purity allows individuals to “maintain a sense of control over their own health.” However, as she rightly notes, “we are no cleaner, even at birth, than our environment at large.”
That Biss pursued the question in the first place while she was pregnant reveals that she had some skepticism herself and was not willing to take the doctor’s advice without being an active participant in the decision, a skepticism I share, at least on occasion. Unsurprisingly, she refers to Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English’s 1978 book, For Her Own Good, a book I read myself at a young age.
Perhaps it was a good thing for my development as a feminist that it was that book I read and not one of many others, because Ehrenreich was trained in scientific research and is an avowed atheist, consequently as critical as she can be about the health care industries she never abandons “the reality based community.”
Biss makes a stab at rescuing the reputation of vaccination for her audience who is presumably well educated about class, race, cultural and gender biases, women who can “discern” that they are looking at “science repurposed to support existing ideologies.” Vaccination, we are told, is not a product of modern medicine. It is derived from a “folk” practice. It “had been practiced in China and India for hundreds of years.” Later in the article, she quotes Voltaire’s description of Circassian women inoculating their children. Having just finished reading Nell Irvin Painter’s History of White People the reference to Circassian women in Constantinople raised my eyebrows.
Returning to the subject that interests Mooney, which not so much Republicans, but wondering why people are not persuaded by evidence, it might be worth pondering why people like Biss, or like me, who have absorbed the critique of patriarchy and western cultural domination and who are suspicious of large corporations are finally persuaded in favor of immunization.
When I was in my early twenties I did some painting work for a doctor. At the time, he was vaccinating all the people in his office for hepatitis B. He asked if I would like him to vaccinate me as well. I said yes.