Yesterday I finished Seth Mnookin's acclaimed book The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. I am not sure why I postponed reading this book that was published in 2012 and now wish I had it read it earlier when I was heavily engaged in defending vaccines during the Disneyland measles outbreak.
However the lessons of the book are still highly relevant to me and to the discussions I often find myself in. For instance yesterday, coincidentally, I found myself back in the same position defending the power of vaccines (this time HPV) against an onslaught of murky anecdotes, hearsay, and outright falsehoods. On such battlefields, the weapons of logic and reason can sometimes have no effect on those impervious to rational discussion based on facts. The Panic Virus explains why such a phenomen occurs.
The chief value of this book, to me, is not that it details the history of this spurious, erroneous, and damaging smear against one of the most important life-enhancing technologies discovered (which it does), but that it delves into how such a false notion took hold, was promoted, and enabled. Published 4 years ago, The Panic Virus is still probably the best book in its field for this very reason.
A person's receptiveness to and acceptance of ideas is not automatic and, ideally, requires careful thought as to if what is being proposed as fact integrates with the sum of one's whole knowledge. A process of rational deliberation is required for an idea to be accepted as true. As such, logical thinking -- in which contradictions cannot exist -- is essential.
What lies at the root of the irrational fear of vaccines is what I believe is pure emotionalism and a disdain for reason. As Mnookin writes:
“But when it comes to decisions around emotionally charged topics, logic often takes a back seat to what are called cognitive biases—essentially a set of unconscious mechanisms that convince us that it is our feelings about a situation and not the facts that represent the truth”
Without logic, any arbitrary assertion is given a cognitive status it does not merit and impossible discussions about proving a negative ensue. If causal scientific data is considered to be equivalent to contextless correlations, anecdotes, and Jenny McCarthy's "mommy instinct" it is clear which side gains and which loses. It is especially egregious when those arguing with such overt fallaciousness are left unchallenged and regard science as just another way of "knowing" no different from rank mysticism, to which emotionalism ultimately has to degrade to as evidence is eschewed and evaded in favor of "intuition".
The Panic Virus is a book that defends not just science, but rationality as such. In Mnookin's inspiring closing of the book he harkens for a world:
“where science is acknowledged not as an ideology but as the best tool we have for understanding the universe, and where striving for the truth is recognized as the most noble quest humankind will ever undertake.”
I do too.