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Lessons From Vaccine Trooferism


A couple of really excellent comments in djw’s vaccines thread. First, from longtime friend of LGM gmack:

The phenomenon you point to also highlights the collapse of any faith in collective or social life. The anti-vaxxers conceive of their position purely as a private lifestyle choice. They want to make their child “pure” and “uncontaminated,” and their means of doing so is the practice of virtuous consumption. So we deal with the very many toxic dimensions of modern life not through any concerted action, but simply by buying “organic” or “chemical-free” products (and then, by not putting “artificial chemicals” in our children in the form of vaccines. The logic here is straightforwardly akin to the predominant corporate attitudes of our day: The anti-vaxxers are trying to privatize profit (their pure and uncontaminated child) and socialize the risk (the outbreak of an epidemic is someone else’s problem). Hence that doctor’s comment that he doesn’t care if his refusal to “put chemicals in his children” leads to the death of other children. So I want to leave aside, for a moment, the idiocy and anti-scientific dimension of the anti-vaxxer position; what’s also interesting (to me) is its refusal to entertain any notion of community, of the realization that things like immunity or a “chemical free environment” must be understood as a shared space that can only be the product of a social and collective activity.

Thatcher was a prophet, and not in a good way.

And second, from stepped pyramids:

To my eternal shame, my dad fell for that routine when fluoride was on the ballot here in Portland. In fact, my whole damn family other than me was opposed. These are otherwise fairly rational, intelligent left-liberals who would identify themselves as wanting policy to be driven by good science.

To be fair, none of them explicitly endorsed the “no CHEMICALS in my WATER” campaign. The arguments tended along the lines of “instead of spending all this money to make [murky, underdescribed industrial interests] profits, why don’t we spend it on universal dental care for children?” The fact that it was not an either-or choice, or that you can’t pay for universal dental care with the budget of a fluoridation program, did not sway any opinions.

There’s got to be a term for the phenomenon where people think they’re being perceptive and intelligent by asking “cui bono?” but are actually being foolish.

There’s actually very important good points here. The “presenting an irrelevant alternative” routine has been used to argue against progressive change for time out of mind. Although at least it wasn’t successful at the time, the attacks on the ACA from both left and center are a classic example of the fallacy — why pass the ACA instead of government-provided Cadillac health care plans for all/Democratic control of Congress in 2011 and 3% unemployment instead? The objection is not always irrelevant — sometimes there are real tradeoffs or questions of priorities. But the objection is pernicious when there’s no actual chance that if policy A is rejected allegedly superior policy B will be implemented, which is much more common.

The “cui bono” point is also a good one. Again, it’s not that it’s never a good question — there’s a lot of venality and self-dealing in politics, and it’s often important to understand it.  But it’s also true that people tend to place way too much emphasis on motives in politics. This frequently drove me crazy during the Iraq War. The most obvious example is the time Michael Moore wasted in Fahrenheit 9/11 with the silly crap about the pipeline. But that’s just an illustration; in general, Iraq War opponents tended to waste far too much time talking about Halliburton or Iraqi oil reserves. Obviously, there was a lot of cynicism and some self-interest among the proponents of the Iraq War. But, ultimately, it’s beside the point. The Iraq War was a horrible, horrible idea whether its proponents wanted to make money or sincerely believed that Iraq would be a conservertarian paradise if Saddam was deposed and/or that Saddam’s balsa wood drones of terror would unleash atomic doom on Salt Lake City if we didn’t invade. The Koch brothers don’t stand to realize any material gains when their groups stop states from expanding Medicaid, but the poor people who consequently die because of it will be just as dead as if every dime the of the rejected federal money went right into David Koch’s pockets.  (And, on the other side, even the Emancipation Proclamation and Civil Rights Act involved cold political calculation as well as high principle. Observing that a public official is not pure of motive is very rarely of any actual relevance to the merits.)

And at least Moore reached the right conclusion about the war. Sometimes, a misplaced cui bono (a cui boner?) causes you to make really stupid political judgments on the merits, as is the case here.

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