Anti-vax is the quintessential contemporary superstition

In the 21st Century United States we speak disparagingly of superstition. Superstition is supposedly a feature of backward, primitive cultures, not our culture.

According to Wikipedia:

Superstition is a pejorative term for any belief or practice that is considered irrational or supernatural: for example, if it arises from ignorance, a misunderstanding of science or causality, a positive belief in fate or magic, or fear of that which is unknown.

But contemporary industrialized cultures have supersitions, too. We just call them “science denialism.”

Unlike traditional superstitions which merely leave you looking foolish, the superstition of anti-vax can leave you dead.

Like traditional superstition, science denialism is usually irrational, involving a misunderstanding of science or causality.

Like traditional superstition, science denialism seeks to explain observed phenomena in a way comprehensible to those without advanced education.

And like traditional superstition, science denialism often gives believers the illusion that they have more control over bad things that could happen to them than they really do.

Superstitions include things like avoiding black cats, walking under ladders and opening umbrellas indoors. That’s supposed to prevent bad luck. But since there is no way that those phenomena could cause bad luck in the first place, avoidance as a preventative merely gives the comforting illusion of control over the uncontrollable. Only the unsophisticated could possibly believe that and even they have trouble defending these beliefs in a rational way.

Science denialism, in contrast, is imagined by its believers, including sophisticated believers, to be true.

There are other significant differences:

Unlike superstitions that are generally spread by word of mouth, science denialism is spread by technology — talk radio, FoxNews and especially social media like Facebook and Twitter.

In contrast to superstitions, science denialism is often about technology.

Denialists invoke conspiracies in which agents of technology use that technology to harm a gullible public.

The ultimate superstition of our time is is anti-vaccine advocacy.

Anti-vax has many of the classic attributes of superstitions:

All anti-vaxxers have a friend, a friend of a friend, or a Facebook friend whose child was completely normal until he or she received a vaccine or multiple vaccines.

But the key feature of contemporary superstitions like anti-vax is technological privilege. Anti-vaxxers invariably have no personal experience of nature. Anti-vax beliefs can only take root and flourish in societies that are capable of nearly eradicating diseases by vaccination. No one who has personal experiences of diseases like tetanus, diphtheria, polio, pertussis and measles could be ignorant enough to believe they aren’t dangerous or were disappearing before the advent of vaccines.

Only those who have no direct experience of nature as it existed before technology — not “nature” imagined as lovely vacation spots — could be gullible enough to imagine that nature creates perfection or cares whether you live or die. “Nature is red in tooth and claw” is more than poetry. Evolution, by definition, involves the survival of the fittest, which sounds nicer than acknowledging that most animals (humans included) ended up as dinner for other animals, possibly before but often after being weakened by injury, disease or age.

Survival of the fittest means that in a world dependent on natural immunity, massive numbers of people died of vaccine preventable diseases, particularly childhood diseases. Even those fit enough to reach adulthood could be carried off at any moment by smallpox, plague or even flu … or now by COVID.

Anti-vax is the quintessential contemporary superstition: it is based on misunderstanding of both science and causality, is propagated by technological media, and imparts a false sense of control over bad outcomes where no control exists. But unlike traditional superstitions which merely left you looking foolish, the superstition of anti-vax can leave you dead.

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