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Science…well sort of...connecting the dots with measles

Boy this measles thing has really got my heart pumping again. In fact, it’s making me downright optimistic about our future. Unlike the usual sciency news story, this one is clearly more than just a standard meme, a weeklong sensation soon to be washed over by the next big thing or faux crisis. This one is different, and for some important reasons that have the potential to have a much broader impact... but maybe not in the way you’d think.

To start, it has, for the first time really focused the ire of both the general public and politicians of all stripes on the ridiculousness of an anti-science position, in this case the anti-vax nonsense. For both left and right, mainstream and lamestream, the outcry has been consistent...for God’s sake immunize your kids. And I can point to the precise locus of the focus (…see what I did there?) Mickey Mouse…Oh hell yes, you can mess with Darwin, our climate and the fluoride in our water but DO NOT mess with the Magic Kingdom. Riffing aside, we know that facts and data do not drive our beliefs regarding science, and that in practice we rely on a complex set of emotionally driven biases and responses to arrive at our beliefs. This is the perfect example. By having Disneyland at the center of the outbreak, it shifts the issue from just another science story to one that threatens one of the core symbols of our national identity. How could anyone allow the happiest place on earth to be under attack, and just stand by and watch. No, this requires action! I guarantee you, if the measles outbreak had occurred in South Texas, it would have been just another one day wonder. But by associating the symbol of Disneyland to the fear response triggered by the yucky pictures of kids with measles, we have a winner. So step one, it has won our emotional attention, and seems to be holding it.

Step two is that it has highlighted the underlying principle behind vaccination. The point is not so much about protecting your child as it is about protecting all of society through the so called herd immunity. It stands on the basic principle that we all need to take small reasonable actions for the greater good; that our individual beliefs, though perhaps deeply held, are trumped by the needs of civil society. So if that principle is accepted here, as it has been nearly universally these last few weeks, is it really that far of a leap to set aside our ideologically driven beliefs on climate change to accept the science, and take the necessary, and sometimes compromising steps to address it for the benefit of us all. I think not, and that’s why this recent outbreak has given me hope.

But to get to the point of connecting the dots between measles and climate, there are a few more bridges to cross. I’ve often posed the question, “What beliefs that you hold dear are you willing to change in order to get others to change theirs?” By asking folks to examine their own beliefs that are typically closely associated with certain ideologies or world views (GMO’s, fracking, homeopathy, nuclear energy, psychic healing, EMF radiation, unicorns), I’m challenging them to confront the fact that we all hold on to certain nonsense. That’s why I find it heartening when I see politicians willing to stand up to small factions in their own parties and support the science rather than the fear. But what I think we also need to do for this to really kick in, is for us all to take on own shibboleths, and discard them for the barriers to greater progress that they are. Just as we cannot justify a world that allows individuals to make belief-based personal decisions that harm the public good, as in the case of measles vaccination, so should we also not countenance one that supports belief in other baseless gobbledygook. We need to have the same courage to call it out when we see it, as both John Boehner and Barack Obama did regarding the measles. By doing so I think we will create more space for those with beliefs contrary to our own, to confront theirs in the same manner.

That’s why this measles outbreak gives me hope…so, what do you believe?

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