Anti-vax — like the Salem Witch Trials — is a form of mass hysteria


Vaccination is one the greatest public health advances of all time.

It has saved, and continues to save, literally millions of lives each year, yet many well meaning parents have become convinced that vaccines are harmful and there is no amount of scientific evidence that can convince them otherwise.

As Rachel Burke reports in The Olympian, We’re hard-wired not to change our minds:

Vaccine injuries are the demonic possession of our time.

The clearest example may be [the] work around the popularly held belief that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is linked to autism, a claim made by a single, long-discredited study. Nyhan, Riefler, and their research partners surveyed over 2,000 parents; most received one of the following: (1) materials from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) correcting the falsehood; (2) a pamphlet describing the dangers of measles, mumps, and rubella; (3) pictures of children who have these illnesses; or (4) a mother’s firsthand story about how her baby almost died from measles. A control group received no materials.

The results: None of these approaches made parents who were opposed to vaccines more likely to vaccinate their kids… (my emphasis)

Why are anti-vax parents evidence resistant?

Nyhan and Riefler speculate that “we’re even more inclined to hold on to a false belief if it threatens our sense of self.”

There’s no doubt that ego is a large part of anti-vax belief. As I’ve written before, anti-vaccine parents view themselves as smarter than others. They see their combination of self-education and defiance of authority as an empowering form of rugged individualism. Anti-vax supposedly marks out their superiority from those pathetic “sheeple” who aren’t self-educated and who follow authority. Psychologically, they cannot tolerate the reality that they are both ignorant and gullible.

But fear of vaccines is hardly new. It’s been around for 200 years, nearly as long as vaccines themselves. And Anti-vax advocates have a perfect record! They’ve never been right even once!!

Why, in the face of the scientific evidence of vaccines’ safety and efficacy and the historical evidence that anti-vaxxers have never been right about anything, do they cling so desperately to their beliefs?

It could be a form of mass hysteria.

According to Wikipedia:

… [M]ass hysteria … is a phenomenon that transmits collective delusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear…

A common type of mass hysteria occurs when a group of people believe they are suffering from a similar disease or ailment, sometimes referred to as mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria.

Fear of vaccines is a collective delusion transmitted through a population as a result of rumor and fear. Yet there’s no doubt that those in the grip of anti-vax hysteria  are completely convinced that children, including their children, have been harmed by vaccines.

But there was no doubt in the minds of the citizens of 1690’s Salem, Massachusetts that members of their communities were being harmed by demonic possession. Just like contemporary anti-vax parents who fervently believe in vaccine injuries, not merely in theory, but in practice in their own children, Salem resident believed passionately in demonic possession, not merely in theory, but in practice in their own neighbors.

Adolescent girls … began to have fits that were described by a minister as “beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect.” The events resulted in the Salem witch trials, a series of hearings and executions of 25 citizens of Salem and nearby towns accused of witchcraft. The episode is one of America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria, and has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations and lapses in due process.

There’s no such thing as demonic possession and there never was, so why were Salem residents so sure they were witnessing it?

  1. Someone had a “fit.” That really happened.
  2. It was interpreted in light of religious beliefs and irrational fears.
  3. Other people also had “fits.” They and those around them were not making it up; they were certain it had happened.
  4. The population was gripped by the collective delusion of a threat and transmitted that fear through rumor, aided and abetted by those who stood to benefit from convincing others that demonic possession was real.

Sound familiar? It should. It bears a striking resemblance to anti-vaccine advocacy.

  1. Someone had a bad reaction after vaccination. That really happened.
  2. It was interpreted in light of scientific ignorance and irrational fears about vaccines.
  3. Other people also had “bad reactions.” They and those around them were not making it up; they are certain it happened.
  4. The population was gripped by the collective delusion of a threat and transmitted that fear through rumor, aided and abetted by those who stand to benefit from convincing others that vaccines injuries are real.

The key point, which cannot be overemphasized, is that many anti-vaxxers honestly believe that they have witnessed the evidence with their own eyes and they’re not lying. They’re like the Salem residents who also believed they had witnessed the demonic possession with their own eyes and they weren’t lying, either.

That’s why anti-vaxxers are evidence resistant. It’s not merely that they can’t understand the evidence because they lack scientific knowledge; it’s not merely that view themselves as “educated,” “empowered” and transgressive. It’s that they are in the grip of mass hysteria.

Vaccine injuries are the demonic possession of our time. They are a collective delusion, fueled by fear and rumor, and fanned by those who stand to benefit from the fear.

13 Responses to “Anti-vax — like the Salem Witch Trials — is a form of mass hysteria”

  1. Griffin
    October 28, 2019 at 8:44 am #

    Aaaand – yet ANOTHER nail in the coffin of the NCB notion that “your body knows when to birth”

    I fricking knew it!

    • rational thinker
      October 28, 2019 at 10:37 am #

      The NCB supporters will likely just ignore this study as they have with others in the past.

      I am going to speculate that most home birthers that dont want to be induced are actually trying to be 2 or 3 weeks overdue. One simple reason why is fetal macrosomia. Home birthers or stunt birthers are always trying to one up each other and one easy way is a ;large post dates baby. A vaginal birth of a large baby will always score you bragging points, hell sometimes it can even get you on the local news.

      • Griffin
        October 28, 2019 at 10:55 am #

        Ah, that’s so sick. And yet again, no NCBer cares about the actual baby.

        Ugh, suspected macrosomia would get MY knees squeezing shut in terror and rushing off to get an elective CS! Which normal person wants their nether bits torn to shreds, not to mention acquiring lifelong incontinence?

        I guess the NCBers are not normal but at least this study might discourage more reasonable women from going postdates…

        • rational thinker
          October 28, 2019 at 11:44 am #

          Yes hopefully it will alert more women of the dangers of post dates.

          I think baby is officially considered macrosomia at a birth weight of 8 pounds 13 ounces.

          My son was 8 pounds 11 ounces. He was almost 2 weeks postdates when I went into labor. I think I was 41 weeks + 5 days. This was my first baby so I did not know any better to demand an induction earlier.

          Three days before he was born I had an ultrasound to check on him and it hurt like hell. It was regular ultrasound on my belly and the tech lady was not pushing hard at all but it really hurt.Looking back that was probably one of the signs that he was too big. Also I did not get any strech marks until the last week of my pregnancy when I was already overdue.

          I should have had a section. The hospital was becoming BFHI at the time so I dont know if that had something to do with them telling me I could not have a section or not. My doctor was actually known for having a high section rate. The woman in the room next to me was pushing for 6 hours.I was pushing for two. So I think they were trying to have all vaginal births unless it was an emergency.

          What really makes me mad is that they KNEW how big he was and they made me have a vaginal birth anyway. The one nurse nearly dislocated my right hip when I was pushing.
          When he was finally out I had 4th degree tears. It took an hour to put my vagina back together. I have had incontinence for 17 years since his birth, and I hate having sex cause it is uncomfortable.
          Now I use my sons birth story as a cautionary tale. If you feel the baby is too big and is postdates you can demand a section dont attempt a vaginal birth it is not worth the long term damage to your body.

          Now I have kind of a running joke with my son. Whenever he doesnt take out the garbage or some other heavy lifting chore I like to guilt trip him by saying “Do you have any idea what you did to my vagina?”

          • The Bofa on the Sofa
            October 28, 2019 at 12:24 pm #

            My son was 8 pounds 11 ounces. He was almost 2 weeks postdates when I went into labor. I think I was 41 weeks + 5 days.

            This is interesting. What I usually say is that a “full term” baby is 7.5 lbs ± 1 lb, and that you correct that by 1/2 lb a week (in the past, the actually typical growth has been provided and, while not perfect, it’s not so far off). So if you were 8-11 at 41+5, that would put you about 7-12 at 40 weeks. Hey, right where I’d say perfectly normal growth!

            This adds nothing to the discussion or your point, but I just thought I’d mention it

          • Griffin
            October 28, 2019 at 12:26 pm #

            I’m so sorry 🙁 but thank you for telling your story
            How utterly traumatic for you. Fucking BFHI

  2. namaste
    October 26, 2019 at 1:58 am #

    Aaah, I love this forum. This is where all the smart, sane people hang out!

  3. Zornorph
    October 25, 2019 at 11:14 pm #

    Can I ask a question? Not directly related, but perhaps a bit similar. My son’s godmother is convinced that dye in food is really bad and causes him to be hyperactive. She can be quite ‘woo’ and I mostly ignore her with this sort of thing, but we’ve both been displaced thanks to Hurricane Dorian destroying the town we live in and she’s been very helpful with helping me with my son as we have had to relocate to the US for the moment, but I am having to travel back and forth. But the trade off is that she seems to be wanting greater input into areas were I simply don’t agree with her and this is one of them.
    I mean, I have no intention of denying my son candy corn because she thinks the dye in them is bad for him. But she’s ‘done her research’ and I would find it helpful if I had a few rational studies or things I could use to gently push back with. Trying to find this sort of thing on the internet is hard – I did find that the FDA has ruled them safe, but I also saw claims that some countries had banned dye in food. So hard to know what is claptrap and what is good science.
    Also a bit related – is there any sort of consensus on kids eating sugar, for that matter? Again, I’m not going to cut him off of sugar and I’m also not going to let him eat it all day long, but it would be nice to have a rational answer for some of this stuff she throws out. I do very much appreciate the help she’s been and continues to be, but I’m not about to let her dictate my son’s diet.

    • mabelcruet
      October 26, 2019 at 7:28 am #

      In the UK, the NHS website is always a good place to go for general advice-its generally conventional medical evidence based advice (woo-free!). There are some food additives that have been banned in other European countries but that are still allowed in the UK-the NHS site says that children with a pre-existing attention deficit disorder should avoid certain additives as it may make it worse, but doesn’t state that the additives cause the behavioural problems.

    • mabelcruet
      October 26, 2019 at 8:10 am #

      ScienceBlogs has done a few referenced posts about hyperactivity and sugar-it’s always worth a read (except then you may as well write off the whole afternoon as you end up going down wormholes of interesting topics).

    • Azuran
      October 26, 2019 at 10:12 am #

      Healthcare triage on youtube did a nice video on the subject of sugar a few years ago. Basically, when they tested for it, it was found out that when they tricked parents into thinking their kids had sugar, parents claimed they were more hyper. So it’s a mix of placebo effect on the parents who believe the myth, possibly some placebo effect on the kids as well (from parents basically telling them they should be hyper because they had sugar or just giving up on discipline because ‘it’s the sugar, we can’t do anything about it’) and because kids tend to get more sugar during activities that makes them more hyper anyway, like Halloween or birthday parties.
      I have no idea for food dye, but i’d be very surprised if there was any truth to your son’s godmother’s belief. Hating on food dye is crunchy.

      • AnnaPDE
        October 28, 2019 at 10:39 am #

        This “sugar rush” thing is the Anglo world’s fan death. Not a thing in continental Europe – the general idea there is that kids get active and run around after any kind of eating as a matter of course.

    • rational thinker
      October 26, 2019 at 2:12 pm #

      I am guessing if you did have studies to show her she probably would not change her mind on it anyway. I have not heard of any food dye being dangerous, but I did know a family once that was allergic to a specific red dye #.
      As for the sugar I would have to agree with Azuran that it is just probably a placebo effect.
      If you are trying to avoid a confrontation maybe just let him eat all that stuff when she is not in the room if thats possible.
      If it is getting to the point where she is really crossing the line you may just have to sit her down for a talk and tell her you are grateful for all her help but you are his parent and you know what is best for your son.
      If you dont start putting some boundaries up soon with this could escalate to things other that sugar and food dyes.
      Best of luck to you.

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