In light of the ongoing measles outbreak within spitting distance of my new home, I’ve become more fascinated than ever about the human capacity to believe wrong things.
To be more precise, I’m not referring to believing things that seems obvious to a casual observer, like the Sun going around the Earth, or things we believe because we were informed incorrectly, like the myth that the Columbine shooters were “loners” who’d been bullied. The former requires centuries of scientific exploration to debunk; the latter was fed to us for years before reason and facts regained supremacy. No, I’m speaking of believing things that have been known to be false for generations, things for which the preponderance of evidence points in the opposite direction.
There is no shame in children believing in fairy tales if their parents present them as true. There is nothing inherently wrong with misunderstanding something complex or with being fooled by a trickster. The list of cognitive biases we’ve been saddled with by both evolution and our respective cultures is long and truly horrifying to a person promoting rationality.
But there should be shame in deliberately ignoring what amounts to an unassailable fact; for example, the fact that high vaccination rates prevent the spread of the particular malady against which we’re being vaccinated. There IS something inherently wrong with believing the wrong thing even when (1) the truth is easily available AND (2) the truth is obvious to casual observers. And there is something evil about putting children in danger due to parents’ intentionally wrong beliefs.
In Clark County, Washington, vaccination rates lag behind the state average, with only 78% of kindergarten students beginning school with the “required” immunizations. I put “required” in quotation marks because it turns out that the “requirement” is a sham. It turns out that in the state of Washington, just as in many other states, a parent can simply state his or her “belief” in falsehoods and thus bypass the requirements. In some school districts — just across the river from me — measles vaccination rates are as low as 72%. This for a disease that requires about a 95% rate to achieve herd immunity.
It’s not the children’s fault. Their parents have to sign the forms, stating a “personal” or “religious” reason to put their children at risk (and, by extension, to put other people’s children at risk). Note that “religious” and “personal” amount to the same thing here. There is nothing, and should be nothing, more inherently valuable about a religious belief than a personal belief.
With more than 50 cases of measles sprouting in our region, suddenly vaccination rates are soaring — by 500%! This means those personal/religious beliefs weren’t very strong after all. They only seemed like strong beliefs when measles wasn’t on the doorstep.
Now, I’m going to make a prediction. Within my lifetime, a lot of people who didn’t believe in global warming are going to be working very hard to combat its effects. But today, despite the overwhelming evidence, they’re going to do nothing. They’re still driving their 18-mile-per-gallon cars, even for walkable tasks like checking the mail or picking up kids from the bus stop. They’re still running their air conditioners at 65°F in the summer. (My new Portland friends won’t understand that unless they’ve visited homes and businesses in the warmer southern states, where you have to bring a jacket everywhere you go in the 100-degree summers because you’re going to end up someplace intentionally causing more global warming by running their A/C units at high power.)
Of course, the relative weight of the consequences makes a difference as to how wrong it is to believe a wrong thing. If you hold a false belief about the rules of a board game, the worst that’s going to happen is a minor argument among friends. It’s not important to me whether you ever correct that belief or why you held it in the first place.
But when your wrong belief can lead directly to the infection of dozens of children with measles or some other preventable disease, or when your intentionally wrong belief is currently leading toward a dystopian future world, then there is something fundamentally wrong with you for believing it.
Again, these are not topics over which there is legitimate debate. It’s not a “maybe” that vaccinations are effective; it’s a definite. It’s not a “well, we think” situation on climate change.
Above, I linked to a list of known cognitive biases, the ways our brains function that often mislead us. And there might be others as of yet undiscovered. I’m sure I’m susceptible to as many of them as you are. But it simply is not that difficult to come to the correct conclusions on massively important topics like disease prevention or combating climate change. The evidence is overwhelming and the paths forward are fairly clear. There is no excuse.