When ignorance reigns

Every once in a while, when wildfires reach urban areas, fire officials ask homeowners in the outlying areas to resist the temptation to use garden hoses to water down their roofs because it reduces the water pressure that firefighters need.

And inevitably there are those homeowners who reject the request and do it, anyway. The needs of the many, as Mr. Spock might put it, yield to the needs of the one.

That’s pretty much what has been happening in the vaccination crisis. Parents who have fallen victim to hoaxes about inoculation have refused to get their children vaccinated, ignoring the risk it poses to all of us, and especially children—their own and those in other families.

Nor is that the only way false information is splitting our society. As noted in our news report this week, with our society becoming more polarized, we are not listening to each other as much. We read only books and magazines we agree with. We watch only television that reflects our own views. We avoid those with whom we disagree. And we fall victim to narrow thinking and junk science.

This way lies disaster. The flow of information should be subject to challenge and debate, but when we become a closed society, subjecting facts to tests of dogma or prejudice or politics instead of the scientific method, the consequences go beyond the immediate effect. It undermines U.S. competitiveness and can even harm national security. A decade ago, when “intelligent design” was in vogue, for instance, University of Nevada, Reno biologist David Zeh told the RN&R, “Modern evolutionary biology has so many fundamentally important practical applications in fields ranging from drug design to conservation biology. Any attempt to subvert its scientific integrity is, in my opinion, a threat to national security.”

Kenya suffers from drought and food shortages, and because of false information spread about transgenic foods, the country has outlawed genetically modified food that could be harvested in greater volume on less acreage with less environmental damage.

In 2002, the Bush administration announced a smallpox vaccination program even though the disease had been all but eradicated, because smallpox could become a terror weapon.

If science becomes captive to folklore and hucksters, we will all pay a price in some way.

What is especially disheartening is evidence in studies that the most likely to believe anti-vaccination nonsense are the best educated in our society—the affluent and upscale. As sociologist James Richardson puts it, they are “educated people who think they have the world by the tail and nothing can hurt them.” But their foolish, dangerous actions can hurt their children and other people. These are people enjoying the benefits this society has to offer, and they respond by endangering that society.

No one likes government compulsion, and we have no wish to see it brought any more into play in this field. But the dangers from parents not getting their children vaccinated are only going to grow unless this trend is stopped in its tracks. Herd immunity will be reduced, more people will fall victim, and the health consequences will snowball.

We may be a society whose people are no longer listening to each other, but we are in this together, like it or not. When diseases begin sweeping the populace, government will have to speak with a louder voice. Now is the time when vaccination opponents can stop that from happening, by dropping the hokum and con men and starting to listen to science.