The Measles Outbreak and American Anti-intellectualism

Ayn Rand wrote, “You can avoid reality, but you can’t avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

As of February 20, 2015, 154 cases of measles were reported in 17 states and Washington D.C. These cases were traced to the Philippines, where measles is still endemic. This latest outbreak follows 23 outbreaks in 2014, including 383 cases mainly seen in unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio. Because it is early in the year, epidemiologists fear that the number of cases will continue to escalate rapidly.

After the widespread use of a measles vaccine was instituted in 1978, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that only 778 cases were reported in the first 14 weeks of 1981, while 3,897 had been reported the previous year during the same period. Prior to the use of the measles vaccine, over 8,000,000 deaths due to measles were reported worldwide. After widespread vaccination was instituted, that number dropped to 800,000.

There are complex reasons why people choose not to vaccinate. Ignorance, fear, lack of education and mistrust in authority all play a role, as do the innate characteristics of human beings.

Anti-intellectualism has been part of America since its founding. In 1964, Richard Hofstadter won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, which chronicles how American society has been underpinned by anti-elitist, anti-scientific and anti-rationalism concepts. However, it has recently become evident that this anti-intellectualist trend is growing. Susan Jacoby published The Age of American Unreason in 2008, in which she traces the current rise of anti-intellectualism and examines the historical trends responsible. Ms. Jacoby cites a number of factors that contributed to the rise, including a shift from reading to the use of videos to get information, and the prevalence of the Internet.

The Internet has made information accessible to more people than ever before, but there an no filters for online information other than the judgment of the person who accesses it. Social media has made it very easy to mount organized attacks on people and unpopular ideas (I’ve no doubt that this post will evoke some vitriolic comments, which will serve to prove my point).

Hofstadter discussed at length how traditional American ideals contribute to anti-intellectualism. The concept of democracy can lead to the idea that all viewpoints are somehow equal and that it is unfair or elitist to promote one over another. There are pervasive cultural issues at the root of this problem.

There is a widespread belief in subjectivism – the philosophy that one cannot know what is true and what is not, or that truth arises from consensus rather than from evidence. Subjectivism is exemplified by the statement, “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Subjectivism is rooted in a desire for fairness, to give all ideas equal credence, and to avoid cultural bias. The prevalence of subjectivism makes it difficult for a scientist to claim that something is absolute, even when there is a large body of evidence to support the claim, because the public has the perception that person claiming the absolute is somehow biased or condescending. The perceived bias may be attributed to the scientist’s employer (e.g., the government, a corporation, or even a university) or to other beliefs the scientist may hold (e.g., political or religious beliefs). But the net result is that claims backed by evidence are considered equivalent to those backed by anecdotes, or that arise from “common sense” or general “knowledge”.

The concept of America is also rooted in egalitarianism, which is the belief in the equality of all men. This belief is enshrined in our founding documents – “All men are created equal.” While this is true in some respects (e.g., the equality of individual rights, or equality before the law), it is obviously untrue in others (e.g., the equality of ability, intellect or expertise). Currently it is perceived to be at least impolite and at worst arrogant to assert that one person may be better than another, and by inference, that one person’s opinion should be given more credence than another’s. This has led to the asinine situation that the pronouncements of a celebrity are given more weight than those of a scientist.

Reversing societal anti-intellectualism will be difficult and will take many years, but it must begin with education, and not necessarily science education. The root belief that must be expunged is that all ideas are equally valuable or deserve equal consideration. That is the belief that encourages public debate of issues that are not debatable in the first place. People must be convinced to accept scientific conclusions not on the basis of authority, but because of trust based on an understanding of the process that produced the conclusion – the scientific method. Scientific communicators should emphasize that reason and evidence, not faith and opinion, are the path to knowledge and encourage critical thinking, rather than expecting their assertions to be blindly accepted as fact. Care should be taken not to denigrate particular political, ideological or religious beliefs, as this only serves to alienate people rather than allowing the evidence to convince the reader of the veracity of the argument.

Having grown up in the 1960s, I can still remember the interest and enthusiasm generated by the space program and the popular excitement of seeing a human being walk on the moon. Even though some die-hard conspiracy theorists even deny that sublime accomplishment, it was science that brought humanity that victory, and most people understood that on a visceral level. It is that trust and respect that scientists must reclaim.

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