Somewhere in the stacks of university libraries — if libraries still have stacks, if universities still have libraries — there must be volumes upon volumes of the old post-structuralist critiques of sciences from the late ’80s and ’90s. Wasn’t that a time! Rolling its way through literature, philosophy, etc, post-structuralism — the argument that there is no neatly definable relationship between text and world, and that no text has a stable meaning — had finally got to the discipline that gave us reliable methods for acting upon the world.
When it got there, it met a weird anarchic strand of philosophy of science pioneered by a student of Karl Popper’s named Paul Feyerabend, who suggested that any one research program was as good as another. There were useful aspects to both approaches, in examining how science was constructed, distorted, badly done, etc. But in that “social constructionist” era they went too far, denying any notion that science was discovering usable laws of an external world.
The Feyerabendian stuff faded pretty quickly, the post-structuralist stuff hung round for a while longer, part of an era when highly educated people were willing to adopt a plethora of alternative therapies and New Age ideas, absent of all evidence. That came to a pretty sudden halt when the crisis of the global environment became highly visible in the late 1980s, the “greenhouse effect” became global warming, and understanding the real external laws of the biosphere became pretty damn important.
Science, once again, became the thing that the Left did, and irrationalism returned to its traditional home on the Right, where it has now become so powerful that it can consume whole governments that would otherwise be able to pretty much write their own ticket. Post-structuralist science critique became a bit of an embarrassment, and there are some vociferous advocates of “the science” around who are hoping no one checks their early writings in student newspapers. (As a (post)-Marxist I never drank the Kool-Aid, my cup being full, as a Marxist-(post), of the bitter dregs of the century).
Now, indeed, a direct and somewhat unreflective attitude to science and power has become the hallmark of large sections of both the “cultural” and “materialist” Left. A type of ebullient rationalism, redolent of the 19th century, has taken over. It’s part of a more general trend that takes in the new atheism, same-sex marriage, as things that are “obviously” correct. It is far less patient with the notion of the high multiculturalist period of the late 20th century, that cultural difference is a complex thing to be negotiated, and far more willing to say that non-Western “communities” within Western societies are simply patriarchal, etc. That’s hardly surprising. Quite aside from the movement of thought, such a renewed belief in thinking that makes things happen is the obvious position of a new and rising class of knowledge producers who have rapidly acquired substantial power and cultural dominance. Yet, in the enforcement of this, a simplistic position is being advanced.
Take vaccination, the anti-vaxx movement and the anti-anti-vaxx movement, for example. No, this is not about to be a plea for considering the truth claims of the anti-vaxx movement. There was a time to genuinely consider the possibility that the MMR “triple jab” had a role in autism onset, and other conditions. That time was more than a decade ago, the question was considered and investigated — and should have been dismissed. Disastrously, however, the Lancet published a piece by a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, suggesting a connection, with some evidence to back it up. The evidence was later shown to have been falsified and misconstructed, but the balm could not be squeezed back into the tube. Hundreds of thousands of children got the triple jab at an age that was a few weeks or months before the median point of autistic symptoms becoming visible. For some parents, succession became causality.
For a few years, that sort of anti-vaxx movement was confined to the UK. But there was a parallel movement — or two movements — in the United States. One emerged from New Age culture and notions of inherent bodily wholeness and self-correctivity. The other emerged on the Christian Right, as a suspicion of mass medical programs, and the abrogation of parenthood by the state. When the UK anti-vaxx movement leapt the Atlantic, the US anti-vaxx movement became supercharged with a “strong hypothesis” (albeit a discredited one). The New Age political subcultures — pretty much cultural leftist, and the conservative Right — became a host body transformed by a friendly parasite. It’s this powerful combination that has allowed the anti-vaxx movement to spread, in utterly different populations, to the point where it has become a clear threat to public health and a cause of the return of measles and other diseases.
“Vaccination has become a vehicle for the expression of a set of social taboos around purity and danger.”
In response to that, there has been a full-court press to refute the anti-vaxx message and movement, as there should be. Yet that pushback is less effective than it could be, partly because of the simplicity of that “rationalist” attitude to the question. For many pushing that, wariness about vaccination is nothing other than ignorance, an absence of knowledge. Yet the resistance is coming from people, not because they are unaware of what vaccination does, but because they are working off a different framework of ideas about risk, knowledge and the world. For every reason, it’s worth trying to work out what is really going on.
One might begin by stepping back from the process of vaccination to mark what a serious act it is. This is the injection of a series of chemicals into a healthy small child, by the agent of the state, applied to a population who have no more than a vestigial understanding of how they actually work. To know and understand why they are good demands a vast amount of abstract knowledge, a whole framework applied to everyday life, and accepted without question. Yet to do so uncritically is to be as irrational as those who believe that measles are from Jesus. The history of medicine is a history of treatments applied without benefit and with positive harm — forced unannounced sterilisations, black people dosed with syphilis as part of grotesque society-wide experiments, poorly tested medications rushed to market, multiple-needle use in a vaccination program that has made things immeasurably worse in Africa and elsewhere. In the US, that scepticism has been worsened by the way in which the market and Big Pharma have corrupted the drug approvals process, so that the TV is now full of ads by lawyers for class actions by victims of drugs whose munificent effects were being advertised two years earlier.
Vaccination is thus an act of violence with a mystery process at its core. As such a critical attitude to how it is being managed seems wise. The anti-vaxx movement has gone beyond that, however. Vaccination has become a vehicle for the expression of a set of social taboos around purity and danger. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas observed in her book titled, er, Purity and Danger, every culture imposes arbitrary regimes of what is safe and what must be excluded, as part of a wider process of making a meaningful world. Anti-vaxx culture connects neatly with the given American settings in that area — a Puritan ideal of striving towards individual wholeness and goodness, bodied forth in hygiene rituals (such as the American obsession with mouth management, the regime of brushing, flossing, rinsing, gum-painting, etc, etc, ceaselessly elaborated), of which vaccination resistance becomes an aspect. Hence the agreement of New Agey-groups in New York and California, with Christian communities in the South — they are simply the Left and Right wings of the one, deeply embedded Puritan cultural-political movement, now in its fifth century.
No amount of evidentiary science quoted will shift the core of such movements, because they are rejecting the idea that the scientific framework should be the form of knowledge that has primacy. The anti-vaxx movement contains a kernel of healthy scepticism about uncritically signing up to imposed knowledge systems, and rejecting a more concrete sense of risk, and a critical attitude to power. But it swathes that in a — what’s the bit around the kernel? Oh, the nut — nut of mysticism. I can’t say I have any answers as to how that insight should change the campaign against anti-vaxx, but it’s pretty certain that simply insisting on the science will only detach a few people, and will harden the attitudes of a whole lot more, many of them with substantial media power. That actresses and actors tend to be at the heart of many of these campaigns is not by chance: their social power is charismatic and irrational, and they are feeling squeezed sideways, as a sub-class, by the rise of “tech” as a dominant heroic element of the culture. You might find a few tech people among the anti-vaxx movement, but not many. By and large, anti-vaxx has become a rallying point for a powerful form of pseudo-knowledge, and the social group that wielded it, that had power before science returned in force.
That caution about how one tries to reduce and minimise the power of the anti-vaxx movement should apply double-plus to the idea of mandatory vaccination. We might well conclude that that is necessary at some point, but that’s not a decision made lightly — and it certainly shouldn’t be “obvious” to anyone, progressive, liberal or conservative, that the uncontroversial best thing is to override parental wishes around the injection of children. If it is going to be a non-consensual use of force against a minority as a necessary part of universal public health, it should be regarded as that — not as the application of plain “common sense” against which all dissent is irrational. There is a ghost of a totalitarian attitude in such a position. Such moves need to be understood at all times as political acts.
Nor should we reject continued investigation of the complex effects on vaccines, just as we should still have research that explores alternatives to the anthropogenic global warming climate change hypothesis, and current best forecasts. But that openness to the possibility of new findings from dissident research programs is the exact opposite of treating public debate around such issues as a “for and against” debate, as if it were equivalent to the question of whether there should be a new roundabout put at the end of Tobruk Road.
Science is not a set of increasingly more accurate opinions about the world. It is an increasingly effective set of practices on the world, which yields a picture of the world. We’ve been using electricity for nearly 200 years, but our picture of what it “is” has changed several times. Thus it is crucial in public debate that scientific questions be handled distinctively by journalists, editors and producers. Defaulting to the sceptic position of having a pro- and anti- person on a program, in an article, etc, regarding evolution, climate change, vaccination, etc, etc, is a cop-out to a pre-scientific position — David Hume’s scepticism, an approach that makes useful science impossible. We need to make this recognition of science as a truth-yielding practice a concrete part of journalist training, the ABC charter, media codes of conduct and the like.
That would also hedge against illiberal acts, such as the attempt to have the Australian government refuse entry to the wacko anti-vaxxer Sherri Tenpenny, a mini-movement that showed how comfortable people from once-dissident groups are becoming with using state power to control discourse. Particularly ironic that many vocal same-sex marriage advocates adopted the argument — since it was state power that was used for decades to enforce the idea that homosexuality was an illness. If editors, etc, have an understanding that there is no need to feature Tenpenny simply because she is here and has a point of view, let her come in and speak to whoever she likes. Even the more political practice of trying to get such people’s venue bookings canceled — reasonable enough for abhorrent speakers such as Nazis, etc — is thuggish, illiberal and counterproductive.
We may well defuse the anti-vaxx movement over the next five years and reduce it to a micro level. But whatever its specific features, its general process arises from deeper cultural strains and the impossibility — and undesirability — of having a fully rationalised culture. There will be a movement after this that will be, comparatively speaking, wackness on stilts. The more that scientific processes become abstracted, rationalised and imposed on the entire culture, the more such anti-systemic movements will flourish. Better to understand now how that happens in order to deal with the ones that are to come — and to use that critical thinking to address the equally dangerous illusion of a simple and self-revealing rationalism. Today’s common sense is tomorrow’s dead trees, yellowing in the stacks.