Paranoia is everywhere in modern America. Granted, it’s always been that way, but in a society bathed in 24-7 mass media, you simply can’t avoid the endless rush of stupid that comes with the mainstreaming of bizarre conspiracy theories. Consider a recent example of this nonsense: In February the Washington Times reported that 38 percent of Americans still think President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. Yes, the so-called “Birthers” are still among us six years and one publically produced birth certificate into Obama’s presidency.
Then there are the old standards. Back in 2012, a National Geographic survey found that nearly 36 percent of Americans (about 80 million people) believe the government is covering up knowledge of UFOs, and last fall Gallop reported that 61 percent of Americans believe the JFK assassination was a conspiracy. Personally, I think that extraterrestrial Cuban mobsters killed Kennedy with the aid of Elvis and Sasquatch, but I digress.
Alongside these conspiracy standards, there’s also another whopper that, until recently, was less well-known than the usual harping over alien cover ups and JFK’s “magic bullet.” This conspiracy has caused serious damage to American public policy, most recently seen in the outbreak of measles in New York City. I’m talking about the utterly baseless belief, promoted by the anti-vaccination movement, that vaccines cause autism in kids — and that doctors, Big Pharma, and politicians are pushing them regardless of the danger. The modern anti-vaccine movement relies on celebrity endorsers like Jenny McCarthy to spread unscientific assertions based on appeals to irrational human emotion. The anti-vaxxers’ one medical supporter is discredited British gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield, whose bogus 1998 research into the supposed connection between autism and vaccines hasn’t tarnished his stature as the anti-vaccine movement’s own Obi Wan Kenobi.
But while the mass-media coverage of the anti-vaxxers is fairly new, the movement itself isn’t. Fears of vaccinations actually go back to the 1800s, when English physician Edward Jenner met a fair bit of resistance to his life-saving smallpox vaccine from folks who felt that inoculation was un-Christian (since it came from a cowpox blister) and just plain weird. Resistance to vaccines was widespread enough that in 1879, a group of concerned citizens formed the Anti-Vaccination Society of America in part to voice concerns about mandatory vaccine laws that took decisions about kids’ health out of parents’ hands. Yet even after a century of vaccination that has eliminated multiple horrible diseases, vaccines still retain an air of controversy among segments of the American public.
So why does the anti-vaccine movement just keep on keeping on? A major reason is that American democracy just happens to be the perfect fetid swamp in which conspiracy ideas can fester. Conspiracy theories are alternate, subjective visions of reality that are completely unmoored from actual reality, and these alternate realities thrive on fear and emotion. In his book A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, Michael Barkum defines a conspiracy belief as “the belief that an organization made up of individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end.” Conspiratorial worldviews thrive on the notions that nothing happens by accident, everything is connected, and that all appearances are deceptive because they conceal actual truths. Above all, conspiracy beliefs seek to “reduce complex phenomena to simple causes,” and this makes them utterly immune (pun intended) to empirical evidence.*
America’s small “d” democratic culture and historical hostility to “elites” of all stripes has long made it a prime breeding ground for conspiracy beliefs. In an American society that rejected (at least in theory) the Old World’s inherited privileges of wealth and monarchy, conspiracy beliefs have thrived amid a culture that tends to favor the salt-of-the-earth wisdom of the common man over the egg-headed trappings of an elite aristocracy.
The great French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville observed this tendency in his 1840 classic Democracy in America, Vol. 2. “Men who live in democratic communities not only seldom indulge in meditation, but they naturally entertain very little esteem for it,” de Tocqueville wrote. He characterized Americans as a people always on the move, and this life of constant action was a by-product of small “d” democratic values that prioritized practical, material gain over more rigorously observed knowledge. Thus, the common man (and woman) had to perpetually rely on “ideas that he has not had leisure to search to the bottom.” The average American, de Tocqueville observed, “is much more frequently aided by the seasonableness of an idea than by its strict accuracy; and in the long run he risks less in making use of some false principles than in spending his time in establishing all his principles on the basis of truth.”
De Tocqueville highlighted the aspect of American democratic culture that elevated the folk wisdom of the common schlub to a status on par with that of the learned scientist. “The world is not led by long or learned demonstrations,” he wrote, “a rapid glance at particular incidents, the daily study of the fleeting passions of the multitude, the accidents of the moment, and the art of turning them to account decide all its affairs.”*
One hundred-forty years after Democracy in America, the great biochemist and sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov recognized that what de Tocqueville identified as the American habit of embracing the “seasonableness of an idea” too often resulted in a toxic rejection of empirical knowledge when such knowledge clashed with sheer gut feelings. “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through out political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,'” Asimov quipped. Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists like the anti-vaccers conflate earnestly felt ignorance with empirically derived knowledge — and many Americans are willing to follow suit.
Indeed, if anyone is willing to embrace the “seasonableness” of an idea over its “strict accuracy,” its anti-vaxxers, who’ve elevated a non-scientist common schlub like Jenny McCarthy to the status of spokesperson for their cause. The anti-vaccine movement demonstrates conspiracy theorists’ preference for simple answers to complex problems. Medical scientists, for example, still don’t know exactly what causes autism – although there is absolutely no evidence linking it to vaccines. But conspiracy theorists aren’t interested in evidence that might contradict cherished worldviews. As Barkum writes, to the conspiratorial mind, “information that appears to put a conspiracy theory in doubt must have been planted by the conspirators themselves in order to mislead.”* In other words, evidence that contradicts conspiratorial beliefs is taken as further evidence that those beliefs are true. The result is a self-reinforcing information echo chamber concealed behind an impenetrable wall of denial.
For those Americans whose kids suffer from autism, the struggle to find the cause of, and cure for, this mysterious condition is understandably frustrating and emotional. But those who promote the false connection between autism and vaccines only inhibit the search for a cure by muddying the media waters with discredited information. Furthermore, as recent outbreaks of long-dormant diseases like measles and whooping cough demonstrate, anti-vaccination conspiracy theories have serious real-world repercussions for real people. America might still be, as de Tocqueville observed, the land of the common folk, but this doesn’t mean that the common folk’s knowledge is on par with that of trained scientific professionals.
It’s one thing to have a healthy skepticism towards authority, but it’s another thing entirely to distrust authority to the point where the only authority is your gut – or a former model making baseless medical claims. Remember, all of the Founding Fathers were intellectual elites, so let’s put empirical knowledge back to the forefront of American culture where it belongs. Your life may just depend on it.
See Michael Barkum, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkely: University of California Press, 2003), 3-7.
See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2 (New York: Vintage, 1840, 1990), 43.