Recently I was asked by a friend in Indonesia why there seems to be a growing rejection of science-based medical marvels such as vaccination in my own highly developed country of Australia. This is actually something that concerns me greatly, as both an educator and someone involved in medical research applicable to vaccine development. Below I give a recount of my reply, which are merely my thoughts on the matter, and should be seen as me “thinking out loud”. No doubt, in the future, I shall revisit this issue with more scholastic rigor.
Firstly my friend asked (I have included grammar corrections as this was from a Facebook conversation, and neither of us use perfect grammar in that medium)-
“It is very funny to see the whole debate about vaccines. But it is interesting though, because with an educated society like in Australia, there is still a big number of people who reject vaccines. I mean, is it because they are educated, they keep asking questions about the best options available? While in a third world country like Indonesia where most people are not so well educated, people don’t ask. They just simply take what are told to be taken… So, no rejection at all for vaccines…”
My reply (anything significant that I added for this article I have left un-italicised)-
“I think it is so much more than that (which I could speak volumes on, but will try to be relatively succinct). In Gordon Ada’s book on vaccination science (Vaccination: The Facts, the Fears, the Future) he shows a graph demonstrating that as vaccines in a society work over time to eradicate disease, people no longer see those eradicated diseases prevalent, but also this makes the very very rare possible side effects of some vaccines look more significant than they actually are (a ratio shift) and because you no longer see the vicious diseases, some people don’t see the point of vaccination anymore. This of course is detrimental to herd immunity, where you need a high proportion of people in a society vaccinated against an infectious disease at all times in order to prevent the pathogen from establishing itself again.
It is also a case of a little bit of knowledge being a bad thing and people not understanding the responsibility that comes with intellectual autonomy and not knowing the difference between legitimate questioning and questioning in a biased echo chamber. Further, you also need to understand the difference between consensus and expert consensus. Groups like the Australian Academy of Science hold a lot more clout than does a group composed of those who possess no credible expertise when discussing vaccination. Also we have the problem of journalists and the media as a whole giving false balance to stories they report on (i.e. thinking that there are two sides to every story; this is fallacious thinking). I find this at the height of journalistic professional irresponsibility and would be like allowing someone who does not believe in the earth being round when discussing astronomy, or people that do not believe that microbes cause infectious disease to have a say when discussing a a measles outbreak (germ theory deniers).
Also I have noticed that people (myself included previously; doing a Ph.D has been extremely humbling) with just a Bachelor degree think they know more then they actually do, when in fact all they have done is touched the tip of around 24 different areas (subjects) and have not an ounce of expertise in any of them. The same can also apply to those in possession of higher degrees that know not the limits of their knowledge and their responsibility as a member of society in possession of higher education. Finally I think that people who are in privileged positions (i.e. Australians and those in developed countries) don’t appreciate being free of the once rampant diseases that plagued us because they don’t experience them; whereas people in places like Indonesia and Africa live every day and for generations with these horrific blights on humanity, and it is they who are truly desperate for a cure. I remember when news came about new developments in malaria vaccine research came out (albeit with a bit of inaccurate reporting and giving people false hope; it was still just relatively basic research), seeing so many people in African nations desperately begging to have the vaccine tested on them in the hope of a cure or developing a preventative measure against malaria, which really is a scourge on many under-developed nations in the world. Sometimes it seems that only a fresh blight of rampant infectious diseases reoccurring can bring more appreciation for science to the developed world. I hope this is not the case and that wider-scale science education, rationality and reason can take hold at all levels of society from individuals, to community, to government.
Though in Australia we are in a potentially very devastating situation given the election of Tony Abbott to power as this will do nothing to quell the spread of anti-intellectualism already rampant here (and other places in the West of course). Here is a man who is strongly opposed to science and education, what with his eradication of the Minister for Science position, anti-vaccination for his own daughters for cervical cancer, seems to have a particular dislike for the environment, wants to slash funds from the Australian Research Council, cutting jobs at the Commonwealth Science Industrial Organisation and closing the Climate Change Commission (since he is a climate change science denialist). So I am particularly fearful for the future of education, research and academia overall in Australia, at least in the near future. However I do have some hope, what with the March in March campaign being the largest anti-government campaign in Australian history. Hopefully reason will prevail, and not just here in Australia, but globally.”