Last week, the head of NHS England warned that ‘vaccination deniers’ are gaining traction on social media as part of a ‘fake news’ movement. In response to this, YouTube has removed adverts from videos that promote anti-vaccination ideas – essentially allowing viewers to get to them even quicker, which is nice.
It’s natural to wonder who these anti-vaccine campaigners are, and why they’re so doubtful of such a specific area of science. They presumably think most of it is correct. I imagine, for instance, that they walk across bridges without assuming they’re going to collapse, and watch the sun set without constantly checking behind the curtains for a nervous old man operating a rudimentary pully system.
So why vaccines? To be fair, there is a lot of information on the internet that points to a link between vaccines and autism. To be even fairer, this information is the product of utterly shoddy pseudo-research, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Brainiac: Science Abuse, where Richard Hammond tested how ‘tickly’ soup was by pouring it on some models and seeing how loudly they giggled.
I think for many anti-vaccine campaigners, though, it’s just ‘a gut feeling’ – which is insane. I mean how confident do you have to be in your ‘hunch’ to take on the entirety of medical science? We’ve all had hunches, but I’ve never had one that’s been peer reviewed. If I did, and the scientific community concluded that my hunch about the Sainsbury’s meal deal was wrong, I’d probably drop it. And, I’d definitely drop it if they concluded my ‘Sainsbury’s are slowly removing pastas so they can gradually shut down the meal deal completely’ theory was also giving children polio.
Basically, as someone who’d unquestioningly suck off my GP if he told me it was important for my earache, I find it hard to comprehend how anyone could put their own opinion before science. But I also have a theory about this: I think that deep down these people don’t want science to be right about everything. Because if it is, then that’s kind of depressing.
You see, while science has dramatically improved being alive, it has also made clear that being alive is utterly futile. The last time I saw Brian Cox on TV, he was explaining how in a few million years there will be ‘no meaning left in the universe’ because the suns will have become ‘too hot’ and made it impossible for life to exist. And this was at 7pm on BBC One. He was competing with Dancing on Ice. The BBC had almost definitely instructed him to be as up-beat as possible, meaning this ‘fact’ was actually one of the least existentially crushing sentiments he could think of.
These days, then, even the most mainstream science is resoundingly nihilistic. So, if like me, you take science as gospel (lol), you’re forced to deal with this cold reality on a daily basis. And there’s no way out. As much as I try and explain to myself that death is ‘basically just sleep’ and that ‘I quite like sleep’, I still don’t look forward to my lungs failing with the same enthusiasm as I look forward to having a nap.
That’s why it can be a psychological crutch to convince yourself that vaccines don’t work, or that, for instance, alternative medicine is effective. If it turns out that some basil and a well-played sitar are better than seventy years of intensive research, then who knows what else scientists don’t understand? Maybe ghosts exist. Maybe there’s a God.
The desire, desperation even, for there to be something more, is what I think underlines most irrational or conspiratorial beliefs. And as science paints an ever-bleaker picture of our existence, we can expect to see more and more anti-science conspiracies emerge. Just look at the flat earth movement. It’s basically some dads with a broken spirit level, but I feel for them. What they really want to say when they describe water as ‘unable to bend’ is ‘please, please don’t let me die’. But they can’t say that because then they wouldn’t be allowed on Good Morning Britain.
As for the vaccine deniers, it’s great that social media is clamping down on their ‘fake news’. But even if they’re silenced for now, these conspiracy theorists aren’t going to go away any time soon. I’ve just got a hunch.
Image credits: BBC, Pixabay.com, NBC news