House Bill 7005 has created quite a stir in Hartford. The act would add a “disclaimer to the top of the [vaccine exemption] form to let parents know a nurse has the right to refuse to witness their signature.”
On one side of the issue are school nurses, whose obligation to best practices in health-care encourages them to “opt out” of involvement with anti-vaccination decisions.
On the other side are “anti-vaxxers,” who prefer to opt out of vaccinations altogether. They believe the bill “could be used as a vehicle to eliminate the religious exemption to vaccines.”
To try to encourage constructive debate on the matter, legislators last week scheduled a panel discussion called “The Science of Vaccines,” in which lawmakers could “ask difficult questions and get information,” according to Jillian Wood, executive director of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
When the planned discussion began to look more like it would be an anti-vaccine exhibition, two experts from Yale — Dr. Brett Lindenbach, associate professor of microbial pathogenesis and comparative medicine, and Dr. Eugene Shapiro, professor of pediatrics and epidemiology — opted out.
“We cannot convince true anti-vaccine people their information is wrong,” Wood explained. “We can only answer questions about scientific truth.”
I applaud Drs. Lindenbach and Shapiro for opting out of the event. The last thing we need in Connecticut — a state ranked as the third “most educated” in the country — is a frenzied anti-vaxxer sentiment that has resulted in emergency declarations in both New York and the Pacific Northwest following an alarming rise in measles outbreaks there.
I know I risk incurring the wrath of a relatively small but very vocal faction of activists dedicated to ending government-mandated vaccinations. But so be it. I’ve got real science on my side — the kind that relies on testable ideas that create evidence that is tested again and again.
“Vaccines are safe. Vaccines are effective. Vaccines save lives,” declared Fernando Stein and Karen Remley of the American Academy of Pediatrics in a statement reprinted in the Washington Post.
What’s more, vaccines do not cause autism, adds the Post article.
“So say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with dozens of studies published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals. The scientific consensus on vaccines and autism is thorough and solid: There is no evidence of a connection.”
So how do anti-vaxxers maintain their influential position in the public debate, causing the number of children who haven’t been vaccinated to quadruple in the last 17 years? Chalk it up to what author Tom Nichols calls “the death of expertise,” the current state of affairs where “Dr. Google” holds more sway over average citizens than real-life physicians.
It’s also called the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” a crisis of confidence — overconfidence, really — in which anybody can find anything on the internet or social media that not only supports believing whatever they want to believe, but also makes them self-appointed experts on the topic.
“What the Dunning-Kruger Effect describes is a situation where people who, in fact, know significantly little of a subject actually believe they know more than the experts,” explains writer Paul Ratner.
“A survey carried out by a team led by the postdoctoral researcher Dr. Matt Motta at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, found that people ‘low in autism awareness,’ who lacked knowledge about basic facts and were keen to believe misinformation, were more likely to believe they knew the topic better than the experts,” explains Ratner. “This ‘overconfidence,’ as the scientists called it, led to the people not supporting mandatory vaccinations policies and exhibiting skepticism about the role of medical professionals in political decision-making.”
The situation leaves us with a classic “individual rights vs. common good” conflict. Admittedly, anti-vaxxers have a reasonable claim in questioning what’s put into their children’s bodies. That’s why most states allow vaccination exemptions along religious, medical, and/or philosophical lines. At this point, people in Connecticut still have the individual right to opt out for only religious or medical reasons and still send their children to public schools.
But please don’t force your individual right on me, especially since my own scientifically-backed belief is that vaccinations benefit not just my family, but society as a whole — you know, the common good. So bring it on, anti-vaxxers! I’ll just opt out of taking your criticism to heart. That would constitute best practices on my part.
Barth Keck is a father of three and an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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