UNICEF predicts that approximately 5 million people a year are saved from the horrific disease of smallpox due to the large scale vaccination programme that was undertaken in the 1970s. This programme effectively eradicated the virus from the human population.
5 million. Per year. For one disease.
In fact, from Edward Jenner onwards, countless lives have been saved by vaccinating people. This is an undeniable fact.
Clearly, however, some people don’t like ‘real’ facts and prefer to believe nonsense masquerading as facts. Which, from here on in, will be referred to as ‘BS’.
BS peddlers come in many guises, from chiropractors to faith healers to psychics to homeopaths – but they all have one aim in mind; to subvert normal science and logical thought with the hope of selling you a service or a product. I’ll talk about homeopaths later – and you’ll see my ire justified – but for now we should look to the media as the biggest BS peddlers around.
The media has a vested interest in selling easily digested, low threshold stories that everyone can read. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. Busy people want to know the facts and newspapers want to sell more newspapers.
What is a problem is when the desire to sell newspapers outstrips the desire to report the facts. So complex news stories get reduced to the lowest common denominator. You know the stories I mean, “eat more purple sprouting broccoli to prevent nipple cancer”. You buy the paper because it’s interesting that they’ve found that out and then next time you’re in the supermarket you wander by the purple sprouting broccoli and pick up a pack thinking “well, I don’t want nipple cancer”.
The actual story behind the headline might be that some scientists have concluded that a compound which is prevalent in purple sprouting broccoli has been shown to have an adverse effect on nipple cancer cells in a petri dish.
That doesn’t mean it will translate into an actionable effect because – and you’ve probably noticed this yourself – you are not neatly laid out in petri dishes. Unless you are very unwell, in which case the efficacy of purple sprouting broccoli is going to be limited anyway.
The story is less interesting when the modal is employed so declaratives take charge.
A Case In Point
The greatest BS peddled by the news in recent years (to do with health at least) was the link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
I remember this story hitting the news and I was shocked by the reactions of parents. How, I thought, could any right thinking person not protect their child against the horrific triad of mumps, measles and rubella? Especially when the scientific case for vaccination was so easy to prove whereas the same could not be said for Wakefield’s (the doctor who compiled the research) claims. In fact they were readily and repeatedly disproved.
At the time I thought that these parents were so impossibly negligent that they should be prosecuted for child abuse.
Over time, I used the MMR/Autism story as a teaching tool to illustrate media bias, and to show how what is reported can have serious consequences in society.
A sound academic use for an unsound one was, I thought, the end of it.
And then I became a parent.
Suddenly there seems to be a reinvigorated backlash against the idea of vaccinating your child because of the scientific equivalent of ‘what some bloke told me in the pub’.
Being a parent has also changed my perspective a little on people who fail to vaccinate their offspring. Don’t get me wrong, I still think parents who choose to not have their children protected are negligent and should be given a stern talking to about how the ‘democratic right to choose’ does not include allowing your child to fall ill with any number of disfiguring and potentially fatal illnesses.
But I understand that the fear of the vaccine being worse for your child than the illness it is supposed to protect them against would cause at least a momentary pause for thought. The little bundle of pink gurgling happiness is your world and I truly believe that you don’t know true fear until you’ve had a child.
Unfortunately, it seems the fear of an unproven connection between ingredients in vaccines and autism is more persuasive than the tried and tested truth that measles (a potentially life-threatening illness) is prevented by vaccination.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was someway of immunising your child against these awful diseases without having to pump them full of chemicals?
Luckily for us all, a group of
snake oil salesmen homeopaths are waiting in the wings to take your cash.
I was teaching a lesson the other day and needed a last minute example of a text with bias. So I showed the students this:
And this got me thinking. If people are willing to make claims that you can cure flu (a sickness that kills between 3300 and 49,000 people per year) with water then surely it can’t be too much of a leap to suggest you can vaccinate children with the same and call it ‘the natural alternative’.
Turns out it isn’t:
And don’t try and tell me that homeopathy actually does anything. It is water. Water doesn’t have ‘memory’, do you know why? Because it’s fucking water. If it could be proved true that water possesses such powers then it would, at a stroke, rewrite our entire understanding of physics, chemistry and biology whilst simultaneously meaning that the drink you have in your hand ‘remembers’ all the poo it’s had in it like some kind of scat-focused obsessive diarist.
The worrying thing is that parents are buying (literally) into this. Leaving their children unprotected from some truly terrifying illnesses.
What You Should Do
As you know, I am very relaxed on the idea of how you choose to parent your child. Some parents set up structured and rigid routine from the very moment of cervical dilation. Others let their flower children float free upon the winds of expression. Most, like us, fall in the bumbling-along-trying-to-keep-him-alive style of parenting. A middle path, if you will.
However you choose to raise your child is up to you.
But the one thing I will say that all parents must do is to immunise your child, with scientifically proven medicines. Medicines that will help not just their health but the health of all of the people they come into contact with for the rest of their lives.
And, if you are a practising homeopath please don’t tell people lies about protecting their children with ‘magic water’ and taking their cash. Because when there is an outbreak of mumps and children are deafened by the virus, or measles and children start suffering permanent brain damage, your pseudo-scientific BS will be part of the reason why.