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Modern Witch Trials

Kevin Drum, while sympathetic (as we all are) to the plight of parents of kids with autism, is obviously frustrated that a few people with no science behind them are causing kids to go un-vaccinated.  Both he and Megan McArdle suggest some reasons for this.  I added this in the comment section:

It all strikes me as part of the general rebellion against reason we see today, alas.

Last week in my class on the late Middle Ages, we learned about the early origins of witchcraft denunciations. Most denunciations were initiated by someone who had undergone a tragedy that seemed inexplicable -- e.g. the death of a loved one due to disease or a crop failure or, most commonly, the death of a child. It seems to be part of human nature to seek out something or someone to blame, and in this case people latched onto the least sympathetic, most marginalized people around them (often widowed women) and accused them of witchcraft as the cause for their tragedy.

The parallels, to me, are striking. I think many of the witchcraft accusers had the same motivation with the Thimerosal crowd, with only the target changing (now drug companies are the unsympathetic ones). The only real difference is that we have in fact added a positive feedback to this point of human nature, by creating a tort system dominated by sympathy over reason, which tends to pay off on such wild accusations of witchcraft. 

Breast implant makers?  Burn them!  Vaccine manufacturers?   Burn them!  Obstetricians?  Burn them!

Posted on April 22, 2008 at 01:36 PM | Permalink


Pardon me for saying it, but the gorebull warming thing (causes, effects, and unanticipated consequences of actions taken or required) is all right out of the same handbook.

We have not yet gotten to ducking and burning scientists, but we are ruining many of them even as we speak.

Posted by: Larry Sheldon | Apr 22, 2008 2:31:59 PM


Posted by: ADHD | Apr 22, 2008 2:48:52 PM

/me plucks the low-hanging fruit:

So if a pharmaceutical company weighs the same as a duck, it's made of wood. And therefore...

Posted by: Erik The Red | Apr 22, 2008 2:55:29 PM

The problem with these anti-vaccine morons is they're getting people killed. Diseases like polio, once thought essentially eradicated, are on the rise again. It plays into the hands of demagogues in Africa and the Middle East who say vaccines were invented by America to harm them, thus shutting down their vaccine programs entirely. If the disease trends I'm seeing here in America are any indication, blowback is just around the corner. Increased migration and international travel is bringing these diseases to us, and our un-vaccinated kids will pay the price.

Posted by: Bob Smith | Apr 22, 2008 3:06:10 PM

...and what also floats in water???

Posted by: tim | Apr 22, 2008 7:17:38 PM

So maybe it's one more extension beyond what you posit: as you say, the witchcraft accusations disproportionately came from people - parents - whose child had died. The autism/mercury link has primarily been asserted by people - parents - who have watched as their child essentially disappeared, to be replaced by . . . not someone less than their child, not a damaged version of their child . . . but someone very very different from their child.

Guilt. Huge, overwhelming, irrational, unearned guilt, which is the standard reaction of the parent who loses a child for most any reason. We're supposed to protect them, and when we fail . . . we've failed. It's our fault, no matter that it's not.

No surprise that people suffering from that guilt might, even unconsciously, seek with all their might and ability to find out who or what "really" harmed their child, so they can at least share that guilt.

Posted by: bobby b | Apr 22, 2008 7:34:25 PM

So if a pharmaceutical company weighs the same as a duck, it's made of wood. And therefore...

We build a bridge out of it!

Posted by: Brandon Berg | Apr 22, 2008 10:05:27 PM

On the other hand, must every single vaccine be doled out - regardless of relevance and without question - under threat of refusal of service by doctors?


Posted by: Scott | Apr 23, 2008 1:13:59 AM

Vaccination protects the vaccinated AND, to a great extent, the unvaccinated. If a substantial enough portion if the population is vaccinated, the transmission of communicable diseases is thwarted.

At the same time, every procedure has the chance for an undesired outcome, perhaps unavoidable, random and tragic.

Coerced vaccination of children for smallpox was probably a successful program- a highly transmissable and deadly disease thwarted, though I'm certain there were vaccination fatlities over the years. This was probably, for a society at large, good risk management. And, since it started in an era when people trusted their government and feared smallpox, the adverse consequences weren't news.

Communicable deadly diseases, are, we now mis-believe, a thing of the past, or something in countries covered on National Geographic. If there is no risk (perceived), there is no benefit to vaccination.

Posted by: tribal elder | Apr 23, 2008 5:36:53 AM

While vaccinations may be an exception, much of the attack on scientific reason is led by class action lawyers and their enablers in the mass media, fear mongering for profit.

Another major issue is the lack of scientific literacy in the United States (especially in the press), due to our wretched educational system and ideology where "self esteem" is esteemed more than hard knowledge and the ability to use it.

Posted by: John Moore | Apr 23, 2008 10:32:04 PM

Maybe I'm missing the essence of this thread, but on the one hand Warren and most of the people responding to his posts, in general, take a libertarian position meaning something along the lines of promoting and allowing people to make choices and live lives as they see fit as long as they aren't hurting others. So for some of the comments here to suggest that "This [vaccination for smallpox under allegedly coerced circumstances] was probably, for a society at large, good risk management." is now OK and in other instances that anti-vaccine advocates are "morons" is to both side with the forces of society at large in the interest of "risk management" (isn't that what a lot of highly costly social programs claim to do?) and in the second case more or less align themselves with the same crowd that calls climate change deniers morons, in so much as they are using the same rhetorical tactics.

It's also a very cheap shot to try and analyze the parents' of autistic children motives with the easy and lazy "guilt" label and then smirk off with self-importance.

Posted by: Rocky Mountain | Apr 24, 2008 9:52:03 AM

“...and what also floats in water???”

Very small rocks.

Who are you, who are so wise in the ways of science?

Posted by: Mesa Econoguy | Apr 26, 2008 12:50:57 AM

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