If you really, truly believe something, and someone provides you with evidence that your belief is false, there’s a good chance your reaction will be angry, defensive, even slightly fearful. While your mind processes these emotions, your mouth will recite the reasons this new information is ludicrous, and slowly, you’ll begin to feel better.
It’s a natural physical reaction, not just reserved for the close-minded, but a well-established defence system put in place to keep our realities in order when faced with upheaval. It’s a wonderful quirk of our brain function that has been dubbed the backfire effect: try using facts to dispel a long-held belief and the believer will dig in irrationally.
It’s the reason a new, well-intentioned bill introduced to the Ontario legislature won’t work.
We have established by now that the fear of vaccines is misguided and dangerous. Misguided because much of the information that has parents protecting their kids from dangerous side effects is in fact misinformation. Vaccines, while they do have occasional mild side effects, are far safer than exposing kids and wider society to a potential outbreak of measles or other life-threatening viruses that the existence of vaccines has all but eradicated.
And the idea that vaccines cause autism has been so thoroughly refuted it’s hardly worth mentioning, but the anti-vaxxers (the name for groups of parents who fear the effect of vaccines on their children) maintain this argument. They’ve dug in.
The fact is, Andrew Wakefield, the former research scientist who made the link to autism, has since been charged with fraud for the research study he published which drew that connection. It was revealed to be a hoax, a dangerous one from which Wakefield would have personally profited. The Lancet, the medical journal that published his research, issued a retraction in 2010. Wakefield has since lost his medical licence.
Dangerous because of those effects: a rash of parents refusing to provide their children with the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine has led to outbreaks of measles across North America. It’s a nasty disease that could kill, especially immune-compromised children who can’t receive vaccines for medical reasons.
While Canada has stopped short of forcing parents to vaccinate their kids, there are some safeguards in place to prevent unvaccinated youngsters from exposure. Students can only attend classes in Ontario if they produce proof of immunization against certain diseases, with MMR on the list along with polio, whooping cough and tetanus.
But parents whose fears over autism and other vaccine myths run deep have an out: they can obtain a non-medical exemption, and continue allowing their kids in schools.
So Ontario’s Health and Long Term Care minister Dr. Eric Hoskins tabled a bill last week that would send anti-vaxxers to school to learn about the myths and facts surrounding vaccines before being allowed such an exemption. The trouble is, government pressure to vaccinate is part of the anti-vaxxer mythology. Being obliged to attend such sessions, it’s likely these parents will only dig their heels in deeper, causing Hoskins’ plan to backfire.