Ideas are like a virus. They seem to come out of nowhere and spread like wildfire before something bring them under control, especially the bad ones. Take, for example, the idea that vaccines cause autism. We had heard before that vaccines could cause this or that, but it wasn’t until something sent the idea over the critical threshold and into the minds of anyone willing to accept the idea. Was it Andrew Jeremy Wakefield’s sham paper-not-a-study in 98? Was it Jenny McCarthy’s entrance into the vaccines-cause-autism debate? Who knows for sure, but I do know that the idea that vaccines caused autism acted very much like a virus and only a deep understanding of biology and virology/immunology (or just blind trust in the medical establishment) were necessary to counteract the effects.
Still, enough people have been infected with that idea to really cause us some problems. The Wakefields and McCarthys of the world are mere vectors for this contagion, as are others. Some are willing vectors who have been taken over by the idea to such a degree that they are willing to say or do anything to spread the pathogen to the four corners of this round planet. Others are ignorant and perhaps even unwilling participants in this plot to take over the world by the idea that vaccines are evil.
From my epidemiological analysis (on the back of a piece of paper while sitting under a shade and drinking a daiquiri), I’ve come to conclude that the idea that vaccines are evil seems to strike a certain group within the general population and that some people seem to be naturally immune to it. Then there are others who only get infected a little bit, and their disease seems to be sub-clinical. These are the people who are okay with some vaccines but not others, or who will vaccinate under protest, many times praying to their god(s) that nothing bad happens.
Yet all ideas are like viruses, and there are good ideas out there. It wasn’t until the idea that washing your hands hit its critical point that gastrointestinal diseases associated with handling food came under control. The spread of the idea that germs could be killed by heat correlates very, very well with the increase in overall survival of many populations around the world. And the idea that board-certified, licensed healthcare providers know just a little bit more than celebrities has probably prevented quite the number of deaths.
I’m hopeful about the idea that vaccines are safe becoming permanently predominant over the idea that vaccines are not safe. Certainly, premature babies and old folks would benefit greatly from the former and by the eradication of the latter. But I’m sure that there will always be some natural host for anti-vaccine ideas, someone out there in the wild that will come into contact with our collective consciousness from time to time and trigger epidemics of ideas that will, in turn, trigger epidemics of vaccine-preventable diseases.
So we must keep ourselves healthy and ready to repel such bad ideas with a strict diet of science and healthy skepticism. We must eat and drink plenty of knowledge and practice daily critical confirmation of the things we are taught by looking at all the evidence, especially the evidence coming from people and institutions that know what they’re doing, that have been accredited by reputable organisations to do what they do.
Lastly, when someone spills the bad virus all over you, wash it off with some facts and bathe it in reason. And wash your hands as well.