Vaccines and Conspiracy Theory: Science vs. Belief

It would seem in America people have misconstrued their First Amendment right to free speech—where the government cannot intervene, prevent, stifle, or censor the exercise thereof—to mean anything they say is of equal value to any other pronouncement and thus immune from criticism or challenge.

This “equality without evaluation” is a product of postmodernism, characterized by skepticism, subjectivism, and relativism., It is defined by a rejection of science and authority (in the expert sense) and general suspicion of reason.

In a post modernist world, anything you say, opinion you express, or contention you make is equal to any other and immune from challenge. This is about as far from reality as one can venture. In the real world, you may have the right to claim something but not the right to insist on its veracity merely because you believe it to be true.

Every man has the right to an opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts. Nor, above all, to persist in errors as to facts.

Bernard Baruch

This sheltering under Free Speech is disingenuous. One cannot prevent someone from making a point, just like one cannot deny others the opportunity to refute it.

In our fantasy-infused society—where many people believe the Bible to be factually accurate, the Earth is flat, angels routinely intervene in people’s lives, and people channel omnipotent beings to heal incurable diseases (but, curiously enough, never regrow limbs)—facts have become malleable to opinion. It presents a clear and present danger to our survival.

One must keep in mind the folly of biblical literalism: what some see as the obvious meaning—in a passage translated from ancient Hebrew to ancient Greek to Old Latin to New Latin to Middle English to Modern English—others will not.

Here’s an example, albeit a bit unscientific. Using Google Translate which has no vested interest in the purpose of the translation and I believe would be at least as reliable as monks with papyrus and a stylus in a cold, candle lit room.

I started with “In the beginning…

Greek “Στην αρχή” to Hebrew: בהתחלה to Latin: initio back to English: initially.

After two thousand years of translation by humans, is the Bible in its current iteration something to believe is inerrant fact? Or to rely on for medical advice?

And yet, there is this from a 2017 Gallup poll…

Chart: data points are described in article

And from the same poll…

Still, while biblical literalism has waned, the vast majority of Americans — 71% — continue to view the Bible as a holy document, believing it is at least God-inspired if not God’s own words.

Coupling the perception that Free Speech means unchallengeable with the right to hold any faith without serious analysis or questioning of its basis or origin, imbues a perception of invincibility to any derived positions. Therein lies the danger. Yet, perhaps there is some advice we can embrace from the Bible, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” Mark 12:17 could be interpreted keep religion and secular matters separate.

Why does this matter?

America is one of the most religious of developed nations. It may be a diverse spectrum of religions, predominantly Christian, with a smaller helping of Judaism and an even smaller portion of Islam, but we are no doubt a religious nation. Just imagine the outrage if a President didn’t end every speech with God bless America.

Although the number of adherents is decreasing in terms of traditional faiths, i.e., Catholicism or mainstream Protestants, others are growing. The Evangelicals (a kinder and gentler term for Fundamentalists) and Charismatics (a marketing term coined to put a kinder imprimatur on Biblical inerrancy, speaking in tongues, and direct messaging with God and Jesus) are increasing in numbers.

Prosperity Preachers (who knew there was such a thing, must have been a different version of the Bible than the one I read) draw tens of thousands to their full-blown production services, more Hollywood than Holy. One such preacher, Joel Osteen, is worth about fifty million dollars. Kenneth Copeland, the granddaddy of the phenomenon whose fortune is between 300 and 700 million dollars, has his own airport. Life is good when God is your business agent.

Apparently they never read Mark 10:21 (“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”)

This religiosity sets us apart from Europe, Australia, Japan, and other educated nations, putting us in line with theocracies and countries with state religions. We may have a restriction against government-sponsored religion, but we support it through forgoing taxes on church property and income. We do this, it would seem, willingly with the Judeo-Christian faith and more reluctantly with Islam, but it is a fact.

Why does this matter? Because when one blurs the line between beliefs and fact it fosters misinformation. Religion has its place as a guide to behavior. Still, when it crosses the line into the rational, secular decision-making process, it becomes indistinguishable from conspiracy theories, dark age mythology, and pseudoscience.

“The likelihood of supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted,” they concluded, by two key pieces of our national character that derive from our particular Christian culture: “a propensity to attribute the source of unexplained or extraordinary events to unseen, intentional forces” and a weakness for “melodramatic narratives as explanations for prominent events, particularly those that interpret history relative to universal struggles between good and evil.” (from a study entitled “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion,”)

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

No better example of the danger of making choices based on beliefs instead of medical science exists than the myths surrounding vaccines


The Great Vaccine Scare: How a Fabricated and Falsified “Study” Became “Fact”

In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a paper linking thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative and stabilizer then used in vaccines) to autism in children. The implication was childhood vaccinations were more dangerous than the diseases they prevented.

It was a fraud, but every con has its willing victims. Celebrities such as the wife of the late shock jock Don Imus, Deirdre Imus, embraced it and portrayed Dr. Wakefield as a martyr sacrificed by the drug companies for the sake of profit.

You may have the right to claim something but not the right to insist on its veracity merely because you believe it to be true.

Joe Broadmeadow

The British medical society investigated Dr. Wakefield and the circumstances and methodology of his “study.” The results were startling and largely ignored by the anti-vaxx community because it didn’t comport with their belief.

“In 2010, the General Medical Counsel declared that the paper was not only based on bad science but was deliberate fraud and falsifications by the head researcher, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, and revoked his medical license. Investigators learned that a lawyer looking for a link between the vaccine and autism had paid Wakefield more than £435,000 (equal to more than a half-million dollars).

In 2004, two studies performed in the United Kingdom examined whether thimerosal in vaccines caused neurodevelopmental or psychological problems; neither found evidence that early exposure to thimerosal was harmful. The study by Thompson and coworkers in this issue of the Journal (pages 1281–1292), the third and most comprehensive to date, also found no evidence of neurologic problems in children exposed to mercury-containing vaccines or immune globulins.

Although the precautionary principle assumes no harm in exercising caution, the alarm caused by the removal of thimerosal from vaccines has been quite harmful. For instance, after the July 1999 announcement by the CDC and AAP, about 10 percent of hospitals suspended use of the hepatitis B vaccine for all newborns, regardless of their level of risk. One 3-month-old child born to a Michigan mother infected with hepatitis B virus died of overwhelming infection.” (

And now, amid the deadliest pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu, the specter of doubt about vaccines raises its ugly head once again, causing people to refuse vaccinations. Vaccines that no longer contain thimerosal or any other ingredient with even the most tenuous link to autism.

A vaccination site at Dodger Stadium in LA had to be temporarily closed because of a protest by anti-vaxxers. A bizarre and dangerous example of pitting beliefs and faith-based myths against medical science.

Photo LA Times

Not sure how receiving a vaccine places one’s soul at risk. Still, there you have it—religion blurring the lines between rationality and doctrine.

They base this vaccination fear on a lie. The conspiratorial proclivities of a significant number of Americans (and it is predominantly an American phenomenon) crashing against rationality spawning a dangerous situation.

Nothing in this world is 100% effective. Not one vaccine, not one medical procedure, not one medication comes without some side-effects or risk. But focusing on the minimal risk blinds people to the overwhelming benefit. These risks are amplified by lies, manipulations, conspiracy nonsense, and outright fraud.

If you want a risk free life, you’re living on the wrong planet, at the wrong time, as the wrong species. Life has risks. Yet, with proper medical procedures, dying is deferrable if not avoidable. There was a time when heart disease always carried a prognosis of a shortened life. Now, open heart patients are walking out of the hospital within days. Some incur complications and die, the overwhelming majority survive.

If one wants certainties, you’re unlikely to find them.

In this case, faith isn’t solely to blame. People may choose to rely on prayer—which has no evidence of efficacy—over vaccines or other treatments—which have mountains of evidence of effectiveness—because they doubt the word of scientists or the government. These beliefs lack any meaningful evidence but are proliferated by conspiratorial nonsense like Q-Anon or anecdotal examples of isolated incidents of government incompetence.

Somehow, they overlook the proof of fraud because it contradicts their beliefs or mistrust of authority.

The duplicitousness of this stance eludes them. With thimerosal, the only study that linked it to autism was fraudulent. Yet, the lie persists. The consequences are frightening. Cases of measles, rubella, whooping cough, and polio are again rising—conditions which, sometimes, can be fatal.

Now, with the increasing numbers of vaccines available to bring the COVID pandemic under control, irrational fear of vaccines based on fraud, lies, misrepresentations, and unadulterated hogwash infects society.

Here’s a great example of the nonsense circulating on social media. This from a Facebook post, but similar idiocy proliferates across multiple platforms.

Does a vaccine give you immunity…. no

Does the vaccine illuminate the virus…. no

Does the vaccine prevent death….no

Does the vaccine guarantee you won’t get it …

Does the vaccine prevent you from spreading it….. no

Ignoring for the moment the misused words—the least of the problems with these pronouncements—some accept this is as a rational reason to forego the COVID vaccination. The limits of our own self-inflicted stupidity know no bounds.

Yet, social media is not the problem. Once, many perceived the invention of the printing press as a danger to society. The printing of the Bible in the vernacular rather than traditional Latin opened the words to millions outside the clergy’s once exclusive confines. Both religious and secular powers feared the unleashing of knowledge would be a death knell to society.

It wasn’t, but it may have been the beginning of the end for the religious hegemony over government and society.

The same concerns hover over social media. But the newness of the phenomenon ignores people’s ability to learn how to embrace new technology. It is a new aspect to free speech, but the same strictures apply; fact trumps fiction given the proper intellectual tools.

If we focus on education—giving people the analytical skills to differentiate fact from myth—people will learn to be discerning in the material they embrace online. There will always be a tendency toward confirmation bias, but truth and rationality will rule given an opportunity.

But we need to confront those who use Free Speech as a shield for spreading lies and myths. We need to subject those who offer opinions masquerading as facts to answer the challenge, prove it. Conspiracy theories based on lies, innuendo, false logic, and ignorance led to an insurrection. If we let similar actions derail our efforts to control this and any future pandemics—something we know is inevitable—we face a bleak future.

Religion and faith have their place. They can be useful guides in our daily interaction with our fellow man. But they can also be dangerous wedges used to segregate and divide. No rational person would just pray for their child’s broken arm to heal and not treat it medically. Why would we tolerate those who spread false information about vaccines that put society at risk without challenging them?

If we don’t, our dearth of basic understanding of science and our declining ability to segregate opinion and nonsense from facts and reality will kill us all. Rationality and reason are the sine qua non to our survival.

If you choose not to receive a vaccination, it is your right. But society has the right to make decisions which are for the overall good. If you find yourself banned from travel, or your children banned from school, or your job at risk, it is not a violation of your rights, it is a consequence of your choice. The exercise of rights is not a guarantee of a lack of repercussions when those individual rights cause harm to others,

Or, at the risk of being a bit crass and flippant, you could refuse to be vaccinated and, in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, “die and decrease the surplus population.” You have the right to choose but remember, Choices: You Make ’em You Own ’em…(the title of a good book by the way click here)


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