by Barbara Kay & Merritt Clifton
Reasonable people tend to overestimate the role that reason plays in history and in their own culture, and also tend to overestimate the power reason has to combat the theories, belief systems and emotions that drive people to action––or inaction ––much of the time.
Unreasonable theories, belief systems and emotions are all very well if they harm only the people who cling to them, not other people or animals. When they produce collateral damage and become a public-safety issue, though, the mysterious glamour of certain kinds of false-news appeal is such that sometimes even the best efforts of reasonable people to contain their influence can fail to make a dent.
The pit bull advocacy movement, the apotheosis of an irrational belief system fuelled by emotion, is a perfect example of the syndrome, and always present in our thoughts when we assess similarly irrational delusions gaining ground in other domains. And so pit bulls naturally sprang to mind when it became clear that the anti-vaccination movement, persisting for several centuries now, had again moved from the fringes to the mainstream.
Voices from some of the same corners
Indeed, voices from some of the same corners have been involved in both opposition to vaccination and pit bull advocacy since 1754, when British farmer and scientist Sir William St. Quintin introduced widespread use of vaccination by inventing the first vaccine against rinderpest. Dutch farmer/scientists emulated St. Quintin within a year, but failed to prevent major rinderpest outbreak in 1768-1786, in part because the crudely produced early vaccines were often as likely to transmit diseases as to stop them.
This fueled the first anti-vaccination movement, a coalition of fearful skeptics and opponents of vaccination on religious grounds, whose arguments were much the same as we hear today.
The alternative to vaccination was to cull sick cattle, who were frequently donated for use in public bull-baiting entertainments; their remains fed the dogs who killed them. As vaccination threatened the livelihoods of the “dog men,” who often had become local entertainment celebrities, “dog men” aligned themselves with the anti-vaxxers. The crowds gathered to watch bull-baiting were easily incited at times to threaten to lynch vaccination proponents, or at least to run them out of town on a rail.
Opposition to rinderpest vaccination easily carried over into opposition to smallpox vaccination, developed by Edward Jenner in 1796. Opposition to Jenner’s work in turn mutated into opposition to rabies vaccination, developed chiefly by Louis Pasteur (1822-1895).
Because vaccines were usually discovered through animal experiments, and because the early vaccines themselves were cultivated in living animals, opposition to vaccination meanwhile became intertwined almost immediately with the anti-vivisection movement, which had slowly gained momentum for about a century before vaccination began.
Opposition to vaccination and the antecedents to pit bull advocacy not only evolved parallel to each other, but as allied causes in the mid-19th century, through the work Henry Bergh.
Founding the American SPCA in New York City in 1866, Bergh famously led crackdowns on animal fighting of every sort, including dogfighting. Rabies in that particular time and place was closely associated with the Spitz, a breed popular among German-American immigrants. Recognizing that rabies could infect any dog, Bergh introduced the tradition of ASPCA opposition to breed-specific legislation on behalf of the Spitz, apparently never considering that this policy could eventually become a shield for dogfighters and fighting breeds. But Bergh actually only half understood rabies transmission. In his zeal to defend dogs from persecution, Bergh tended to reject findings derived from animal experiments, and thus opposed vaccinating dogs against rabies so influentially that major humane societies worldwide did not begin to accept vaccination until more than 30 years after his death in 1888.
National Canine Defence League
Founded in 1893 as both an anti-vivisection society and an anti-vaccination society, the London-based National Canine Defence League eventually reversed positions on vaccination and eradicated rabies from Britain by vaccinating 35,000 dogs in the vicinity of outbreaks during 1919-1921. But the NCDL, retitling itself Dogs Trust in 2003, continues to echo Bergh in opposition to breed-specific legislation, and in 1997 was instrumental in passing disabling amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 to allow the possession, breeding, and sale of Staffordshire pit bulls. These amendments opened the way to 18 years of rising dog attack fatalities, disfigurements, and dogfighting cases throughout the United Kingdom.
Even after mainstream humane opposition to vaccination subsided, anti-vaccinationists, anti-vivisectionists, and creationists opposed to the notion that humans might share any evolutionary history with animals maintained a vigorous alliance––but at the political and cultural far right fringe of society, rubbing elbows with opponents of fluoridating and chlorinating tap water.
Only the rise of the left-influenced animal rights movement in the late 20th century returned anti-vivisectionism from the far right fringes into mainstream view. Creationism simultaneously made a comeback through the rise of televised evangelism and the efforts of U.S. politicians including Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to win votes from the culturally conservative American South.
A single fraudulent study
The anti-vaccination movement took more than 20 years longer to re-emerge from the shadows, but has gained momentum since 1998 through fear-mongering over an alleged link between vaccinations and autism, a condition then widely believed to be an emerging mental illness afflicting children, but now medically recognized as a “spectrum disorder” with widely varying symptoms, effects, and causes.
The fear-mongering remains to this day mostly based upon a single fraudulent study published in The Lancet, the journal of the British Medical Association. The Lancet partially retracted the study in 2004, and wholly retracted it in 2010, but the damage was done. Uneasiness over vaccination again, as in the past, became itself the infectious disease.
Measles is the current battleground. Measles is a childhood disease that vaccinations had eradicated in the U.S. by 2000. Now, thanks to the anti-vaxxers, it is making a comeback. In most measles cases, no lasting harm is done. But it is highly infectious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”
And it can be lethal. The seven-year old daughter of writer Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate factory et al) died within 12 hours of contracting measles encephalitis in 1962. In a pamphlet Dahl wrote, begging his fellow British citizens to ensure their children were vaccinated, he wrote: “In America,” he wrote, “where measles immunization is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.”
Now those words vibrate with irony. Measles is back because of a growing number of unvaccinated children, whose parents, convinced that Big Pharma is covering up negative data in the interest of profits (not that Big Pharma is always pure or innocent of corrupt practices, only that measles vaccinations have been commonly used worldwide for more than half a century and by now we would know if there was inherent risk in them) or because of other such unsupported theories, have demanded their children’s exemption from vaccination on grounds of faith. Beginning with an outbreak at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, the toll as of January 1, 2015 was 102 cases of measles reported in 14 states, more than in all of 2012.
The issue is often framed by anti-vaxxers as one of individual liberty, but such arguments are untenable with infectious diseases. Concern for public safety often trumps individual liberties where there is risk to the general population. In the case of diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella, “herd immunity” – i.e. at least a 75% effective vaccination rate––is necessary to prevent their spread. The target to achieve 75% effective vaccination has to be 95%-plus, because not every person or animal responds to vaccination in the same manner (people and animals with impaired immune systems may not develop antibodies).
Ordinary people get that. It appears likely that a growing chorus of public indignation, driven by realistic self-interest (on a far grander scale than breed specific legislation proponents can ever hope to match in the canine world) will prevail, and bring the measles debate to a speedy conclusion, with reason prevailing over conspiracy theories.
In these debates, it does not help that the very people one might assume would be in the vanguard of the reason camp, align themselves with the irrational. U.S. Senator from Kentucky Rand Paul (a physician!) and New Jersey governor Chris Christie did not cover themselves in glory when, on libertarian grounds, they lent public sympathy to parents who refused to vaccinate their children (even though both made clear their own children were vaccinated). Arizona cardiologist Jack Wolfson stands foursquare with the anti-vaxxers: “We do not need to inject chemicals into ourselves and into our children in order to boost our immune system,” he has stated.
In Canada, Melody Torcolacci, an adjunct instructor in the Kinesiology and health Studies department at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has been teaching anti-vaccination material. Current and former students have produced lecture slides with YouTube links to anti-vaccine propaganda. The debate in this case is between public safety education and academia’s commitment to free speech. The public is not on the side of Ms Torcolacci: 58% of Ontarians believe parents should not have a say in whether their children are vaccinated or not (although 20% of Ontarians believe some vaccines can cause autism). The law in Ontario says children must be vaccinated against measles to attend school, but waivers are granted for conscience-rooted beliefs.
Pushback against pit bull advocacy
In spite of the disproportionate wordage we have assigned to the anti-vax movement, pushback against pit bull advocacy movement was our motivation in writing this column. Recently interviewed by Skype on a Canadian public affairs program was Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, who spends a great deal of his time these days combatting vaccine myths. And what he had to say brought the pit bull advocacy movement instantly to mind.
It is very difficult to challenge myths when people are invested in them, Nyhan said. Don’t we know it! When you challenge those people, they tend to “double down and become more insistent” on their truth, because their very identities are bound up in their myths.
Nyhan spoke about educational programs his team had initiated, designed to appeal to reason, providing facts and statistics and proving that the myths that anti-vaxxers believed were simply not intellectually tenable. The program, Nyhan confessed ruefully, had been a dismal failure. Indeed, he found that those who were not willing to vaccinate their children became even more determined when presented with facts and scientific evidence.
Does this sound familiar?
Hardening false beliefs
Furthermore––and this really does seem counter-intuitive––the seemingly positive recruitment of President Obama himself publicly stating “The science is indisputable” actually seems to have been counterproductive. Nyhan himself had not been sanguine about involving the President, as he believes this has the potential to create a polarizing effect of Democrats vs Republicans. Vaccination is a public good cutting across all political and sociological lines, and consensus can only be arrived at if there is no political partisanship involved, real or perceived. But Nyhan’s opinion lines up with other studies showing that public education campaigns tend to harden false beliefs.
The animator asked what the solution was to persuading those with their heels dug in. Nyhan responded that the only ray of hope for reaching people was through family physicians and pediatricians. People trust doctors more than any other professionals, and certainly far more than they trust politicians. Nyhan implied that instead of trying to reach people directly, education should focus on lines of communication between doctors and their patients.
Anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists always base their beliefs on partial truths of minor epidemiological significance. Some vaccines––bad batches, and vaccines producing unpredicted allergies––have caused adverse reactions, even death in isolated cases. And dogs of breeds other than pit bulls sometimes maul or kill people. But in either case, the risk involved does not meet the bar for exemption from, respectively, mass prescription and mass proscription
There is a lesson to be drawn from the anti-vax front for those of us engaged in what often seems like a hopeless battle for hearts and minds on the pit bull front. Certainly we should keep trying to get celebrities who champion pit bulls to change their tune; to convince Arianna Huffington to allow equal time for opposing views on pit bulls; and to keep pushing the Centers for Disease Control to reprise its wonted role in objective data collection.
Veterinarians of conscience
But perhaps we should consider as well a concerted campaign to woo veterinarians of conscience to form a discrete body, separate from their caninely-correct association spokespeople, whose purpose is to reach out to their peers with a view to educating their clients on pit bull truths, veterinarian by veterinarian.
I realize that pediatricians and veterinarians are in radically different situations. Medical associations are not anti-vaccination, so pediatricians do not have to feel like outliers when they counsel rational behavior, whereas veterinarians who challenge pit bull advocacy mantras are beating against their own profession’s cultural current. But out of some 175,000 U.S. veterinarians (105,000 in public or corporate practice, 65,000 in private clinical practice), there must be a handful who are prepared to take a public stand. Some already do make statements as individuals. But they would have more clout if they were organized into a political action group. Perhaps some sort of collaboration with surgeons could be a possibility.
Two truths unite the camps promoting vaccination and effective breed-specific legislation. The first is that, as Mark Twain said, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. The second is that when it comes to conspiracy theories, authority regarding the truth is in the eye of the beholder. Our shoes are on, and we have been running as fast as we can without attracting the support our cause deserves, so perhaps we should be thinking more about how to recruit to our team faster runners, with a proven track record of appeal to the grandstands.