Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Measles: First, Tell the Truth

By Stephen Maurer

Various Republican presidential contenders just got caught waffling about measles vaccines. It doesn’t take a political genius to see that this was meant as a wink to the libertarians in their party. The only surprise is that the wink was a little too public and now, suddenly, they’re backtracking.

The knee-jerk response, played out all over the media, is that “the science is indisputable.” Or as President Obama said the other day, “pretty indisputable.”

Except that science doesn’t work that way. Back in the 10th Century, when books were judged by the author’s reputation, academics really did believe that. But when you talk about the "empirical method" you disavow that tradition. We like to say that science is about logic and evidence. But as soon as you say that, binary outcomes are few and far between.

Because at any given time, some of the logic and evidence is bound to be wrong.

So really, President Obama got it right. The evidence in favor of vaccines really is “pretty indisputable.” But oh, how lovely it would be to suppress the qualifier.

And here’s the thing. Rand Paul is an ophthalmologist. He reports hearing “many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” He even claims to have delayed vaccinating his own children.

Coincidence? Probably. But evidence all the same. Should "Science" really ignore it?

The dust-up is particularly annoying because there is a much better argument. Suppose the refusniks are right and that the risks of vaccination exceed the benefits. Just why is that? Because they live in a country where other peoples' children have already been vaccinated. So even if they are right today, they will change their minds when the measles epidemics return.

You can take the argument farther. Vaccinate the whole world and being a refusnik is completely, mathematically sensible. Maybe religion can ‘prove’ that a risk is not just small but zero. Science -- evidence -- cannot.

Trouble is, the refusniks don’t live in that world. Instead, they are free-riding on the rest of us.

So why can’t the media and political establishment say that? Because something in our national character resists calling the refusniks selfish. 'Misguided' sounds a lot nicer.

Like Jonathan Swift, I have a modest proposal. The old Hippocratic oath said ‘First, do no harm.’ This was fine for individual medicine. But some human goals can only be achieved collectively. And that means telling the dissenters to, yes, go against their conscience.’

So let’s call compulsion what it is. And say why we are still willing to do it. Because everything will go down a lot better if we explain why collective action is necessary.

So here’s a new Hippocratic oath: First, Tell the Truth.