Hundreds of years ago, people believed that the devil lived among them. Fearful people would witness their crops fail, their children get sick and die, their livelihoods destroyed by fire or flooding. They would look around for a cause of such evil. Particular attention would be paid to the convenient scapegoat – perhaps an old women, a stranger from out of town, or a Jew. Maybe these people were heard saying something, or maybe they were seen doing something just before the calamity struck. For the medieval mind, this was all that was needed. The devil was afoot, and because these people had done something suspicious beforehand, they had clearly channeled his evil for their own malevolent purposes.
“Because it happened beforehand, it caused it”. It’s called the’post-hoc fallacy’. Because the witch had cursed an official, she had brought on the sickness. Because the Jew had refused to give a loan to the alderman, he had been responsible for the great fire. It’s nonsense, right? It may have been a coincidence or a distortion of fact, but this, to the medieval mind, was beside the point. It happened before, therefore it caused it, therefore the witch is guilty.
The same medieval thinking persists today, except now its not witches and the devil. It’s vaccines and Big Pharma.
“Because my child received the HPV vaccine and subsequently got sick, the vaccine caused the illness”. The only evidence is a co-incidence, but to a fearful mind, this is enough. Why not other childhood vaccines like TDap, or MenC? Why not a genetic predisposition, or a viral illness? No. It was the witch, or should we say, the HPV vaccine. And the great evil behind it all: Big Pharma.
It’s the job of science to show that there is a correlation between two events. It’s the job of science to find cause amongst hundreds of probable causes. And the scientific results to date are clear: there is no connection between the vaccination and subsequent illnesses. Kids get ill at the same rate, irrespective of whether they have been vaccinated or not.
To the fearful mind, all this evidence is too much. Get away from us with all your studies and numbers and percentages. Let’s just burn the witch and be done with it. Why choose a rational course when ignorance and emotion will do?
Our medieval tale tells us something else. When the cause of the fearful is taken up by officialdom, by well-known celebrities and by politicians on the make, when fear overrides fact as official policy, things quickly get much worse. The fear is legitimised, stifling the voices of reason amid censure and threats. Official sanction permits it to metastatise into other areas of policy, thus multiplying the fear. In the case of HPV, perhaps we will not burn witches, but we will burn away our options, so that a now preventable cancer can continue to wreak damage on young lives.
Politicians, journalists and opinion formers must stand up, not for what’s popular, but what is true, based on the very best science and expertise. Following the route of least resistance and aligning with the fearful is not leadership. It is the opposite of leadership. We’ve seen these patterns before and the chaos they have caused. We cannot afford to repeat them.