Information Asymmetry and Anti-Vaxxers Movement

It’s easy to blame anti-vaxxers. But should we? They come from a good place – they want to protect their children. As parents, we make many mistakes – all in the name of love for our children. Some of us are over-protective, some too strict, others too permissive. Most parents try to mold their children in their own image instead of allowing children to make their own choices and pursue their own talents and passions in life. Parental love is often misguided. However, refusing to vaccinate your children may be one of the most dangerous mistakes parents can make.

Many suggested that anti-vaccination movements thrive on conspiracy theories. We find them on the right and on the left extremes of the political spectrum – those on the right mistrust the government, those on the left mistrust pharmaceutical companies – frankly, both have a point, perhaps governments and big pharma should be mistrusted… to a point. However, this does not tell the whole story. After all, scientists who do not work for the government or for big pharma tell us to vaccinate our children. So, why some people chose not to trust the scientific community, which has no pecuniary interest in whether someone does or does not vaccinate their children?

The broader question is why people mistrust science? Isn’t the science our primary source of reliable knowledge – the knowledge that powers everything from smartphones we use to cars we drive? Another question may be, why the same people who mistrust science accept on face value ill-founded theories propounded by charlatans?

There is a deep asymmetry in how knowledge is presented. Before I went to study physics at university, I had a piece of paper pinned on the wall in front of my desk at home with one word handwritten on that paper – “doubt!” As I realized later, self-doubt was the organizing principle of science. Scientists doubt everything – accepted dogmas, themselves and their colleagues. When you present your paper at a science conference, you can’t convince anyone on the strength of your charisma, or on the authority of your position or weight of your prior achievements. Scientists are in the business of searching for truth, whether it is in mathematics, in physics, in nature or in medicine. Doing science is a humbling experience. You learn early on that most of your hypothesis turns out wrong, most of your brilliant ideas lead nowhere. As Socrates noted long ago, the more you know, the more you realize how much more you don’t know. Maybe this is why, the greater the scientists, the more humble they are.

Scientists know only too well that their results, however correct they may seem now, are only correct until another study shows them incorrect. All experimental results are tentative and subject to be corrected or disproved by later experiments. The best theories are only correct until they are replaced by better theories, as Newtonian physics was replaced by Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

This is why, when researches present their results, they always present them with cautions optimism stressing that more studies are needed to confirm their results. True scientists always sound as a bit unsure of themselves using equivocates such as, “maybe,” “perhaps,” “it seems,” “plausible,” etc.

You can immediately recognize a charlatan spuing pseudo-scientific rubbish by the degree of self-assuredness so uncharacteristic of true scientists. Deletants are often wrong but never in doubt. They present their unfounded ideas and untested theories as the absolute truth suppressed from the public by some global conspiracy. Often lacking academic training, they substitute anecdotal evidence for a well designed randomized, double-blind study. They just don’t know any better. Sometimes, when they do have proper credentials, they may be driven by some ulterior motives such as notoriety or greed.

As a result, unsophisticated consumers are left to decide between information that is coming from the lips of bona fide researches always coached in cautious and uncertain terms and “absolute truth,” presented without a shadow of a doubt by charlatans selling some snake oil or another conspiracy theory – not an easy choice.

Should scientist become more assertive, pontificating like politicians who always think they are right? I don’t think so. Self-doubt and humility are cornerstones of scientific research. If the result of rigorous research published in peer-reviewed scientific journals sounds less assuring than untested theories spreading on the Internet, so be it – it’s the price we have to pay to preserve the purity of science.

When it comes to vaccination, no responsible pediatrician will ever say that all vaccines are absolutely safe and have no side effects. This would not be true. There are always risks involved. I know it first hand. When I was a child back in Russia, I was vaccinated against Polio and contracted the disease from the vaccine. I was partially paralyzed for a while but then recovered, thank God.

Nevertheless, we vaccinated all our children. Everything we do in life involves risk. Rational decisions are usually made based on the risk-reward analysis. The risk-reward analysis overwhelmingly supports vaccination. Particularly in the case of measles. The measles vaccine by itself or as part of the MMR vaccine is one of the safest there is.

I don’t blame those naïve parents who think they are protecting their children refusing to vaccinate them – these people are victims of ignorance and disinformation. I do blame those who justify their refusal to vaccinate in the name of religious exemption. Judaism gives no grounds for such a claim. Jewish religious law, Halachah, requires a sick person to go to a competent doctor and rely on his or her expertise and training. Furthermore, we believe that healing comes from God, as it says in the Scriptures, Any Hashem Refo’echo – “I am God who heals you.” God uses doctors and His messengers and medications as His channels for healing.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov stated: “Every parent should have his children vaccinated within the first three months of life. Failure to do so is tantamount to murder. Even if they live far from the city and have to travel during the great winter cold, they should have the child vaccinated before three months.” In modern times, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the absolute majority of the rabbinical authorities encouraged people to vaccinate their children. It is a mitzvah – a religious duty – to seek professional treatment and rely on the professional expertise of bona fide physicians. To claim otherwise is to misrepresent and discredit Judaism, and give fodder to antisemites.

Originally published on May 13, 2019.

About the Author
Dr. Alexander Poltorak is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Physics at The City College of New York. In the past, he served as Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, and Adjunct Professor of Law at the Globe Institute for Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
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