I watched the movie “Ender’s Game” the other night along with some friends. In it, a child named Ender is chosen to take on the task of confronting an alien threat. He is chosen because of his intelligence and his ability to confront a threat immediately and disable it (e.g. killing) so prevent future attacks. This is shown in two scenes. In one, a bully confronts Ender and picks a fight. Ender wins the fight but continues to beat the bully, killing him. (Ender is never told that the bully dies.) In another scene, another bully picks a fight with Ender in a shower room. Ender offers a diplomatic solution, telling the bully that Ender will lie and say that the bully won the fight. The bully wants none of that, so Ender defends himself and nearly kills the bully.
After the second incident, Ender goes to Earth to talk to his sister. He tells his sister that the military is training him to kill the alien threat, but, in doing so, the military is also allowing Ender to understand his enemy. He and his sister agree that understanding his enemy allows Ender to love his enemy. In essence, when you think like your enemy, you love your enemy because you also come to know how your enemy loves themselves. This is the position I find myself tonight, as I look out the window to a city that refuses to go to sleep.
In all this time that I’ve been confronting and refuting anti-science people in general, and anti-vaccine people in particular, I’ve come to learn more and more about them. Little by little, I’m starting to understand them, and, in doing so, I’m starting to care about them. I’m starting to “love” them, for lack of a better term.
Consider, for example, the anti-vaccine mom whose children are autistic. She has been told by people with medical and scientific credentials that her children’s autism is because of vaccines and nothing but vaccines. Sure, there are other explanations for the autism running in her family, but things like genetics and prenatal exposures put the blame on her. That, or they do not allow her to do anything about it. For that mother, treating or “curing” the genetic autism in her children would be like trying to change skin color. It’s doable, but ultimately futile.
Instead, if the autism is caused by vaccines, then maybe there is some “treatment” to detoxify her children. Or, if nothing more can be done, she can be an activist and spare other parents the “hardship” of having an autistic child. Because that’s another thing that you need to understand about our not-so-theoretical mother… She suffers in her heart and mind from having to deal with autistic children. In her world, mothering should have been a thing of joy and fulfillment, not a daily chore of adjustments and schedules.
Then I got to thinking about Andrew Jeremy Wakefield. Imagine living in that nightmare of a world. You go to school, work hard to make the grade and be a physician, get to be one, and then it all comes crumbling down. At that point, you would have a few choices to make. One choice would be to accept that you’re no longer a physician and move on to something else. Or you could do as Andrew Jeremy has done and continue to live the posh life, being adored by many fans who would come out in small-but-strong numbers to support you. You’d get compared to Jesus and to Nelson Mandela. You’d live in a mansion and travel the country to be adored even more, held in the highest regard (regardless of who the adoring fans are).
Or put yourself in the shoes of The Kid. From a very young age, your own mother tells you that vaccines made you the way that you are, and the way that you are doesn’t quite fit with the world around you. You’re bright, passionate, and can focus on things like a laser beam. Will you work to stop epidemics of disease around the world? No, you’d focus on vaccines and write things about them and the people who support their use, whether or not you had all the evidence you need to back up your assertions. You’d write even more when you realized that a lot of people agree with you and have nothing but praise for your writings. And you would attack anyone and everyone who dared question the way you think. Because, hey, you’ve been this way all your life due to those goddamned vaccines.
The list of people go on and on, and I find myself shaking my head at the things that say or write and the lies that they so wholeheartedly defend. Sure, it makes me angry when I see the damage to public health that they can do. Yeah, I get angry when they attack my friends and colleagues. And, of course, I get defensive when they accuse me of doing unethical and illegal things, even if they don’t have a shred of evidence against me. But for a few minutes after I do my research in order to counter them, I end up understanding them, and I feel the sadness/anger/despair that they feel. I can almost feel the horror that they feel in realizing that what they have said or done is a lie, and that they need to keep on doing it because acknowledging the truth means losing a lot of friends, a lot of admirers, and in some cases a lot of money.
If you’re an anti-vaccine activist reading this, know that I love you like you love yourself, because I’ve come to understand you. I’ve come to see how horrible it is to devote so much time and effort to a lost cause. Vaccines have been around for almost 300 years, and they will be here for 300 more. You and I will long be dead and buried and forgotten, and humanity will continue to vaccinate. Medical science will continue to move forward. And all those memes, and all that Twitter activity, and those blogs, and stealing pictures of people will not have made a single dent in the work that we in public health have been doing for decades.
God, it must be horrible to want to end vaccination and knowing that it’s only expanding and saving more lives. Big hugs to you, and I wish you peace.