The real lesson in the Disneyland measles outbreak


We’ve finally found an issue that unites the American Left and the American Right!

Unfortunately, that issue is anti-vaccination.

As many pundits have noted, anti-vaccine activism is prominent among diverse political groups that have virtually nothing else in common. Why?

Because when it comes to science, we are all postmodernists now.

PBS offered this definition of postmodernism in connection with the topic of faith and reason:

[P]ostmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually.

If there is any discipline that claims to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions and ethnicities, that discipline is Science.

As philosopher Daniel Dennett noted:

“Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”

Academics in the humanities were not the only ones disabled by their “distrust for the very idead of truth and their disrespect for evidence.” Ordinary citizens are similarly disabled.

Simply put, what many on the Left and Right share is the belief that each of us create our own reality. For the Left, that reality is that Nature is perfect, intuition takes primacy over rational thought, and all authority should be distrusted. For the Right, that reality is that American/Western European values are supreme, fear takes primacy over rational thought, and government is evil and controlling.

Postmodernism has typically been associated with the Left, and most on the Right, particularly the far Right, would be horrified to find themselves in company with the postmodernists. In my view, however, the “pre-eminent” postmodernist of the early 21st Century was not a philosopher, but a politician, President George W. Bush.

His philosophy, was famously summarized by an aide (believed to be Karl Rove) in speaking to a journalist:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

How has this view played out in the world of anti-vaccination?

Reality is that vaccines are one of the greatest public health achievements of all time, saving literally hundreds of millions of lives.

But the Left has created its own reality in which industry is engaged in a gigantic conspiracy to render eveyone autistic while making copious profits. And the Right has created its own reality in which government is engaged in a gigantic conspiracy to abrogate parental authority to determine what is safe for their children.

This belief by the Left and the Right that we can create our own reality is not limited to the vaccine issue. It extends to climate change, evolution, genetically modified food products (which, in reality, is ALL food that has ever existed) and food itself. It makes no difference to the “postmodernists” that the science on these issues is settled and massive consensus exists among experts. Both the Left and the Right feel free to ignore reality in an effort to shore up their philosophical and religious beliefs. Cognitive dissonance is hard; making your own reality is much easier.

The Disneyland measles outbreak is a stark reminder to the “postmodernists” on the Left and the Right, that reality exists independent of their prejudices and beliefs.

Both had argued that the disappearance of measles was the result of “sanitation,” not vaccination. Both had argued that vaccines don’t work and herd immunity was a figment of the imagination. And both had argued that refusing to vaccinate would not allow measles to reappear because it was “gone.”

Those arguments were spectacularly demolished by the reality of one unvaccinated child exposed to measles who then visisted Disneyland. The outbreak has spread to multiple states by now and the unstated consensus that we should let citizens ignore science in favor of personal beliefs has been blasted apart.

The real lesson of the Disneyland measles outbreak is a harsh one. The real lesson is that there is a reality independent of individual belief and that individual belief is powerless to change that reality.

Climate change is real.

Evolution is the only explanation for the world that currently exists.

GMOs in food are not harming anyone.

Alternative health quackery is not saving anyone.

And … unequivocally … vaccines prevent disease and save lives.