Anti-vax: a flat earth theory for the 21st Century

Flat Earth

The flat-earthers are back!

Well, not exactly, but their descendants have come up with the flat-earth equivalent for the 21st century: they don’t “believe in” vaccination.

Anti-vaxxers are all over social media promoting the “dangers” of vaccination. Anti-vaccine advocacy isn’t about vaccination, though. It’s all about parents and how they wish to view themselves.

Believing experts is portrayed as an intellectual deficiency and refusing to trust them is constructed as a positive cultural attribute.

It is important to understand that “vaxophobia” is not based on science. There is no scientific data that supports the fears of anti-vaxxers. Indeed vaccines are one of the greatest public health achievements of all time and virtually every accusation about vaccines by anti-vaxxers is factually false.

Vaccines have been around for more than 200 years, and anti-vaxxers have been around for almost as long. Over the years, they have made countless accusations about the “risks” of vaccines, and they have been wrong every single time. Despite the fact that they have been 100% wrong in their understanding of vaccines, statistics, risks and claims of specific dangers, they still have a large following. In part, that’s because the cultural claims of anti-vaxxers resonate with prevailing cultural assumptions. Anti-vax is a social construct.

‘Trusting blindly can be the biggest risk of all’: organised resistance to childhood vaccination in the UK (Hobson-West, Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 29 No. 2 2007, pp. 198–215) explores these cultural attitudes. The first social construct is a re-imagining of the meaning of risk:

A primary way this is achieved … is to construct risk as unknowns… [This] serves as an example of how the realist image of risk as a representation of reality is undermined. In the realist account, uncertainty and unknowns may be recognised but are usually framed as temporary phases that are overcome by more research. For the [vaccine rejectionists], there is a more fundamental ignorance about the body and health and disease that will not necessarily be overcome by more research. Interestingly, this ignorance is constructed as a collective – ‘we’ as a society do not know the true impact of mass vaccination or the causes of health and disease.

The problem of anti-vaccine advocacy being based on false premises is elided by ignoring the actual scientific data and focusing instead on whether parents agree with health professionals or refuse to trust them. Agreement with experts is portrayed as an intellectual deficit and refusing to trust them is constructed as a positive cultural attribute:

Clear dichotomies are constructed between blind faith and active resistance and uncritical following and critical thinking. Non-vaccinators or those who question aspects of vaccination policy are not described in terms of class, gender, location or politics, but are ‘free thinkers’ who have escaped from the disempowerment that is seen to characterise vaccination…

This characterization of anti-vaxxers can be unpacked even further; not surprisingly, they imagine themselves as praiseworthy while other parents are denigrated.

… instead of good and bad parent categories being a function of compliance or non-compliance with vaccination advice … the good parent becomes one who spends the time to become informed and educated about vaccination…


… [vaccine rejectionists] construct trust in others as passive and the easy option. Rather than trust in experts, the alternative scenario is of a parent who becomes the expert themselves, through a difficult process of personal education and empowerment…

The ultimate goal is to become “empowered”:

Finally, the moral imperative to become informed is part of a broader shift, evident in the new public health, for which some kind of empowerment, personal responsibility and participation are expressed in highly positive terms.

So anti-vaccine advocacy is about the parents and how they would like to see themselves, not about vaccines and not about children. In the socially constructed world of vaxophobes, risks can never be quantified and are always “unknown”. Parents are divided into those (inferior) people who are passive and blindly trust authority figures and (superior) anti-vaxxers who are “educated” and “empowered” by taking “personal responsibility”.

This view depends on a deliberate re-definition of all the relevant terms, however, and that re-definition is unjustified and self aggrandizing. The risks of vaccination are not unknown. Believing that vaccines work is not a matter of “trust”; it is reality. Questioning authority is not the same as being “educated”; indeed, it isn’t even related. Lacking even basic knowledge of immunology and rejecting medical facts is not a sign of education, independent thinking or taking personal responsibility. It is a lack of education at best, and self-serving, self-aggrandizing ignorance at worst.

5 Responses to “Anti-vax: a flat earth theory for the 21st Century”

  1. Russell Jones
    November 27, 2019 at 4:47 pm #

    Yeah, that’s the ticket! Don’t trust blindly in science or medical professionals; instead, trust blindly in RFK Jr., Del Bigtree, Jenny McCarthy and Mike Adams. What could go wrong?

    Confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect aren’t just mindsets for these folks, they’re ways of life. The siren song of being able to consider oneself an expert without actually expending the time, money and effort needed to acquire actual expertise is pretty potent as well.

    Anyhoo, I’m tired of been one of the sheeple. I’m an old geezer with significant heart disease. In furtherance of becoming medically woke, I’m going to fire the cardiologist who’s taken such good care of me for the past dozen years or so. From whom should I take medical advice going forward, Gwyneth Paltrow or Kat von D?

  2. rational thinker
    November 27, 2019 at 4:32 pm #

    In the past ten years its become more of a status symbol among anti vaxers the more children you have and dont vaccinate the higher they are on the empowerment social ladder. One of them had the nerve to tell me I should not have given my daughter the MMR cause thats where they said her autism must have come from. My daughter was showing signs that something wasn’t right when she was a few days old. Within a month more signs and by a year old she could not even sit up by herself, so MMR my ass. Autism is unpreventable and something you are born with. I encourage all parents to get all the vaccines modern medicine has to offer and yes the MMR too.

    • Russell Jones
      November 27, 2019 at 5:04 pm #

      You’re more perceptive than many. I followed those omnibus autism proceeding the U.S. Court of Claims adjudicated back in the late 2000s. Some parents testified that their autistic children were just fine before vaccination, but experts who reviewed home video footage testified that the young ‘uns were exhibiting clear signs of autism long before that time.

      I suppose it’s natural to look for someone/something to blame, but vaccines are a singularly unfortunate and ill-advised target.

      • rational thinker
        November 29, 2019 at 9:40 am #

        I had first baby just two years before so I guess it was soon enough to remember what a normal baby should act like. It took almost 2 1/2 years before my concerns were taken seriously by doctors. They just kept saying she’s just a late bloomer. I finally got a referral for the neurologist after much yelling and complaining. It only took the neurologist about an hour to conclude she had severe autism.

        I guess it is natural for many parent’s to look for someone or something to blame. In our case my husbands half brother also has severe autism so we had a genetic link.

        The blame phase does pass eventually for most but for some it doesn’t pass so easily. Then they start blaming vaccines or diet, ect. This is when well meaning parents get sucked into pseudoscience and “cures.” This is where the people selling these miracle cures and treatments profit.

        Does Andrew Wakefield really believe the MMR causes autism? I dont think he does, but he makes a lot of money if he says he believes that.

  3. Ruth Mayfly
    November 27, 2019 at 1:08 pm #

    But….the flat earthers ARE really back.

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