Baby, Misc.

The Moral Scare of Baby Immunization Shots

Welcome to part 2 of my vaccine series. Part 1 covered the fact that vaccines don’t cause autism. Part 3 will be about the herd myth and have the vaccine schedule of the CDC.

We’re going to be talking about moral scares in this post on baby immunization shots.

What is a Moral Scare?

It’s a Sociological concept. It is neither inherently true nor inherently false. A society decides whether or not it considers a scare to be true. I’m going to use a brief example to help explain.


Let’s say we’ve got a small town called River-Place. Over the past couple of years, people have been getting sick. No one knows why.

A few of the town members realize people are getting sick after drinking tap water. So they raise the alarm and start campaigning for people to not drink tap water, only bottled.

These people would be known as moral entrepreneurs. They see an issue, raise awareness, and campaign for change. When moral entrepreneurs are able to successfully campaign, it becomes known as a moral scare. A large portion of the population believes them or sees some credibility to their claims.

Back to the example, officials decide there is some merit to the claims of the moral entrepreneurs and send in professionals to test the water. The tests can show one of two things: the water is clean or it’s the cause of everyone getting sick.

Even though for the science there are only two outcomes, for the town’s people, there are four.

  1. Water tests positive for sickness – Everyone believes the test, change is put into place to make the water safe again, and the moral scare is put to bed
  2. Water tests positive for sickness– No one believes the results and looks elsewhere for a cause. This is the least likely to happen, but not outside the realm of possibility. Moral scare shifted to other causes.
  3. Water tests negative – People believe the test and look elsewhere for the cause.  Moral scare shifted to other causes.
  4.  Water tests negative – The results are not believed and people maintain the belief that the water is contaminated. Moral scare remains.

This is a very simple example. Real life is much more complicated. A population’s reaction to a moral scare has several possibilities. The more complex the situation, the more options for reactions.

One theory can help to explain why there are different outcomes despite the same facts. It is called the Thomas Theorem. The one line explanation is this, “What we believe is real, is real in its consequences.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if what we believe is backed up by facts and evidence. We will suffer the consequences of our beliefs.

If we believe vaccines cause autism, everything we perceive will point to that truth. And we will ignore any evidence that says otherwise.

The U.S. military has its own version of the Thomas Theorem. The saying goes, “perception is reality.” It is usually used in reference to fraternization. Even if a subordinate and a superior aren’t fraternizing, if someone can perceive they are, they can be punished for it.

What Makes a Successful Moral Scare?

Philip Jenkins has some ideas about that. He has a list of 7 parts that create the ideal panic.

  • Competing forces: There must be those for the cause and against it. Media outlets covering the issue on both sides need to have equal prestige.
  • Comprehensible: Those who spread the story need to be able to understand it
  • Accessibility: The people who are the target of the scare need to be able to come in contact with it.
  • Narrative: The scare needs a likable hero and a hated villain. Faces of both need to be publicly available.
  • Visual Portrayal: Standard visuals need to be available. A scene that when people see it, they think of the scare.
  • Outcome: Some type of call to action that’ll end the moral scare. The action may be realistic or not.
  • Previous Expectations and Knowledge: Moral scares are more successful if there was one on the subject already in the past. They feed off of former knowledge.

Let’s put these into action.

Source: Jenkins, Philip. 2009. “Failure to Launch: Why Do Some Social Issues Fail to Detonate Moral Panics?” in The British Journal of Criminology. Oxford Unity Press.

The Moral Scare of Vaccines causing Autism

Don’t use google or chrome. It won’t bring up competition.

  • Competing forces: Plenty of media coverage for the case of autism and vaccines. It’s on the major news outlets often. And doing an internet search will bring up competing articles. Don’t use google or chrome for this. Google knows what your beliefs are and will only show you sites that support your current beliefs. It won’t bring up competition.
  • Comprehensible: Kids getting sick from a shot is very easy to understand. Autism has been well studied. People know what it is. Less comprehensible is understanding correlation vs. causation. Most people view the two as the same thing which makes it difficult for society to understand correlation is real but causation is not.
  • Accessibility: Anyone who goes to a doctor’s office or takes their children to a doctor’s office comes into contact with the scare. Everyone in the modern world gets vaccines. This scare affects everyone, not just a certain portion of society.
  • Narrative: Anyone who has an alternative treatment option is a hero. Parents don’t want their kids to have autism. Anything that can help is seen as heroic. The villain is the pharmaceutical companies. It’s easily identifiable. The pharmaceutical companies have not conducted themselves well.
  • Visual Portrayal: Children with autism are the visual portrayal. Autism is a real part of society and no one knows the true cause. The seed of doubt against vaccines makes them the boogeyman behind all the children who are different. In addition, vaccines provide an identifiable cause that parents can do something about. The genetic factors associated with autism are not something parents can fight against.
  • Outcome: The call to action lies in the form of not getting vaccinated. Some sparse out their vaccinations instead of following the CDC schedule.
  • Previous Expectations and Knowledge: Information about vaccines causing autism has been around for decades. It’s very easy to ignite a new scare. With the internet, moral scares may never fully go away anymore. Old websites will always be present with outdated information for people to find. New scares will ignite.

Thomas Theorem is not part of Philip Jenkins theory, but it is part of the equation: What people perceive to be true is the truth. Sometimes, the truth is determined by who campaigns better. If those who believe vaccines cause autism have better campaigns, everything we perceive will point to that truth. And we will ignore any evidence that says otherwise.

One More Piece to the Success of the Moral Scare of Vaccines

The biggest contributor to moral scares is the grain of truth factor. All moral scares contain some truth to them. The problem is the truth being blown way out of proportion.

Vaccines are an intervention and interventions are never 100% safe or successful. Every time someone goes in for surgery, they are at risk for unforeseen complications. Every time someone receives a new drug for the first time, there is a risk of a negative reaction. Using a new essential oil can lead to bad side effects.

Vaccines as a whole are a good thing, but that does not mean there are not instances of adverse reactions. These minor instances are what give life to the vaccine debate. People see these cases of bad reactions and assume vaccines are bad.

There is no such thing as a 100% risk-free medicine whether it’s being made by a doctor in a lab or an herbologist from completely natural ingredients.  Sometimes the risk only lies in unknown allergies. Other times, it is in rare cases of bad reactions.

The CDC recognizes bad reactions do occur and documents them. Here’s a search on their website for you to view their literature on the subject.

Vaccines are recommended because their benefits far outweigh their risks.

The Moral Entrepreneurs

The moral entrepreneurs of the case against vaccines are the parents of autistic children and parents who don’t want their kids to be autistic. There are others as well. But the original entrepreneurs and still the bulk of them, are the parents.

They’re not trying to get people sick by making them vulnerable or have some evil plan in place. They’re just parents seeking answers for what their children are going through. They want there to be a cause so they have something to blame and protect against.

I’ve seen a meme that said something along the lines of, ” Our society is too scared of being different. Even if vaccines did cause autism, I would get my children vaccinated. I’m not afraid of people who are different.”

That’s a heartless sentiment. Put yourself in their shoes.

You spend nine months anticipating the birth of your child. Dreaming about playing with them, teaching them your favorite things, learning their likes and dislikes, and all the other joys we dream of for our kids.

Your child is born and you start the joys of having a child. Then around 18 months, your little baby is diagnosed with autism. As they grow up, they never learn you are ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ They never intentionally smile at you. Never tell you they love you. Will never be independent.

Wouldn’t you be out for answers of why you were deprived of the life with your child that everyone else gets?

The case I just discussed is someone on the lower end of the spectrum.

Many people with autism can and do connect with their families and are independent. My nephew included. But not all kids share that story. Some fall into the category previously mentioned.

These moral entrepreneurs are just looking for a way to help their children and prevent anyone else from having to go through the trials they do. They aren’t scared of being different. They feel the pains of losing their dreams of what being a parent was going to be like and finding a new meaning of parenthood.

If we are going to convince the moral entrepreneurs of anti-vaccines that vaccines are safe, we must first have the compassion to understand why they have their stance in the first place.

You can read here for how people may react to news of their children being diagnosed or here for one parent’s testimonial.

Why Don’t Moral Entrepreneurs Believe the Science

There is all this science debunking the myth of vaccines causing autism, so why do people still believe it? One reason is distrust. Science changes its recommendation on a regular basis with new advancements. For example, when I talk to older women in my family, they say they gave their kids cereal well before 6 months of age.

The current recommendation is to wait until 6 months. Science and understanding have changed since then. With constant change, how can we trust any advice from science?

Trusting a constantly evolving scientific understanding is far better than trusting untested or proven false theories (i.e. if I don’t vaccinate, my child is unlikely to get a vaccine-preventable disease).

Doing the latter is basically using your own child as a guinea pig.

Another source of distrust is politicians discussing science. Many politicians promote false science and work to discredit accurate scientific sources. A similar issue happens with the news. There is fake science, or junk science, to be found just like fake news. Distinguishing false from real is not easy.

Anecdotal evidence is another problem. These are your stories of people being diagnosed with autism after receiving their vaccines. People know someone who was diagnosed after receiving their shots and do not understand the difference between correlation and causation.

The vaccines and autism diagnoses happen to correlate (occur) at the same time. Vaccines do not cause autism.

The fear of vaccines causing autism can also cause parents to be more on alert for autism symptoms post vaccinations. Whereas before vaccination, they weren’t looking for them and didn’t notice them.

Single-bullet theories also cause problems. They search for easy explanations. What’s an easy answer that will solve the problem? For the current discussion, autism is the problem and vaccines are the cause. So not getting vaccinated is the single-bullet needed to cure autism.

Vaccines are not the only single-bullet theory to arise in regards to autism. The rise in consumption of frozen yogurt is one example. In other words, stop eating frozen yogurt and autism will no longer be a problem.

Both theories are unfounded.

Source: BEARMAN, P. (2010). Just-so Stories: Vaccines, Autism, and the Single-bullet Disorder. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73(2), 112-115. Retrieved from

Moving On

It’s almost time to move onto our final post on vaccines. But before we do, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject of this post. What do you think?

You can read part 1 here and part 3 here.

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NadiaNadiaHenryRick HScott Hinkle Recent comment authors
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Vaccination time is such a scary area for a parent, I remember quite well all the horror stories you hear when you first starting looking into your child’s vaccinations. 

But for me it was about outweighing the pro’s and con’s. I had both my children vaccinated. 

This is quite a difficult topic, I guess we can only decide for ourselves on this one and moral scares effect different people in different ways.

Chrissie Spurgeon
Chrissie Spurgeon

This is a fascinating post on a very important topic. I had a friend who maintained that her baby son was revealed as being autistic shortly after receiving a vaccine.. This resulted in me deciding not to have my baby vaccinated. What we did not realise at the time, was that the onset of autistic symptoms was by pure coincidence at exactly the same time as the vaccine was given, at around the age of 18 months.This is something that you also refer to. It is so easy to make moral judgements when all the information needed to make that… Read more »

LearnToEarn Admin
LearnToEarn Admin

I found your post very informative as I had not been introduced to the concept you speak of in Moral Scares.  Highly involved thought processes make good for a great discussion! My appreciation came to a valid point when I read your About Me section and discovered that you are speaking from experience and you’ve actually been through quite an ordeal with your own pregnancy. I’m sure your husband and daughter appreciate that you are still here to help others and help them through the stages of pregnancy. Your ambitious efforts will pay off and I wish you well in… Read more »

Olonisakin Kehinde
Olonisakin Kehinde

good information spread here.

honestly, moral scare entrepreneurs are dealing with a lot of challenges, having kid/s with autism is a big deal and one would helplessly advocate against vaccination most especially knowing that a lot has been built around vaccination being the cause of autism. it is no news that a lot of parents do not want their kids vaccinated but the truth of the matter is, vaccination offers more good than the bad.

As for me i stand with being vaccinated.


I agree that many parents would be considering whether or not to have their child vaccinated, especially when mention is made of the possibility of a relationship to autism. There are many medical mysteries that can only be shared by statistics and as a statistician I know that even with a probability of 96%, my child can still be the unfortunate one having an adverse outcome. My opinion is that vaccines were developed to save children from the challenges brought on by disease and so, amid all the studies and scares I heard about, I took my girls in to… Read more »

Sujandar Mahesan
Sujandar Mahesan

A perfect explanation of Moral Scare. Now I have a clear idea what that means. I read through the whole article and it sounds great. I’m pretty sure it is going to be useful for all the parents out there. I shared this with my aunt and she loved it. Thank you for writing this article. Appreciate it.


Wow, I have taken in a lot in just few minutes, never knew this much on autism, 

Information about vaccines causing autism has been around for decades really and I’m really worried about this.

Until we change the mindset and foll the news that is current we will only be caught in the past with no way out

Thanks for sharing in details this wonderful post


Sometimes even when the evidence is right in front of someone, they believe what they want to believe. It’s hard when your child has a condition that is hard to explain. It’s easy to look in the wrong direction for answer. There are many misconceptions about various medications whether they are used to treat or prevent diseases. It’s always good to do your own research and even that these days are sometimes misleading. The information shared by search engine aren’t always reliable and that make this a very complicated topic to discuss.  How else can we find answers? The population… Read more »


Highly engaging blog dealing with autism and vaccination. I thoroughly enjoyed the logic, different theories explained here.  In college I came across a lame girl who was relating her condition with vaccine. She kind of convinced me. I had seen so many autistic kids and went in depth where I can tell the world that autism is hereditary. My aunt’s family is carrying for couple of generations. I like the comment of your regarding pharmaceutical industry.   When I was pregnant I decided to do the amniocentesis to find out any abnormality of my child so I would not blame vaccination.… Read more »


This was a really interesting read! I can’t say I properly understood the topic of ‘moral scares’ but you do a great job of breaking them down and providing examples. As you point out, vaccines definitely fulfill a lot of the criteria of a moral scare. They definitely have competing sides, and I definitely agree with you about the accessibility aspect. Vaccines are everywhere!  I imagine you are pro vaccines, then?

Laura Endahl
Laura Endahl

I appreciate your article.  When our girls were little there wasn’t as many speaking out about it as there is today.  The government, I believe, fuels the fire.  One ounce of distrust, or proven medical ailment on one or a small group of individuals, and everything goes haywire.  My husband and his siblings are fine.  Our children are fine, I am fine, and well all had immunizations.  

Keep writing, you make many very valid points,Laura

Jag Randa
Jag Randa

Media has a huge effect on immunization shots. It’s a scary process when everyday there is something about adverse affects which gets related to a child getting their shots.

I am glad I got my children their shots, the pros of it outweighed the cons. Glad that you are addressing this as so many have jumped on the bandwagon of against vaccination. 

My children due to being vaccinated escaped the perils of chicken pox and all other things. My daughters fear of cancer is lessened because of vaccines. 


Yes, very controversial topic and difficult to discuss with many people. My kids are all grown up and in my time, there was never even a choice of not vaccinating the kids, it was compulsory and not questions asked. Now as hopefully one day I will be a grandmother, i won’t be able to state my opinion on the subject, as my daughter in law who is an amazing young woman, who will shortly get a degree in medicine, is strongly opinionated on that subject being a medical professional. We can only influence ourselves , but not even the family… Read more »


I am a mother who does not believe that vaccines causes Autism. Having y children, all of whom had been vaccinated, and none have Autism. The theories are spot on in this article. Snowball effects are real and we have the unasked privelage watching it first hand everyday. If everybody believed everything that is said negative about things such as vaccinations cause Autism, people would move to a secluded area, live off grid, never drive, never eat or drink processed foods, foods with red dye and things such as. This article was very insightful and knowledgeable about why people play… Read more »

Scott Hinkle
Scott Hinkle

Wow!  Thanks for the informative post. I have to say sometimes I’m dumbfounded by the success of the moral scare.  I guess it’s the same everywhere though.  There’s enough people that just believe and thus it’s so, even when science says otherwise.  It’s a mix of so many factors that really make it believable.  Things such as hearing others say it’s true, just wanting/wishing it to be so, needing something to “blame”, making a very basic observation and taking it as fact or proof and so on. I hate to say it but it’s this sort of thing that leads… Read more »


I have been coming frequently to your site to check this second part. Thank you for addressing this very interesting subject.

This Sociological approach puts the vaccines question into perspective. And I fully understand now moral entrepreneurs (parents in this case).

This post is so rich. Points like “perception is reality” and “the need of finding simple solutions to complex situations” are very well applicable to the vaccines discussion, but also apply to a wide range of social misconceptions.

Thank you very much! I greatly appreciate your input on this topic. And I’ll be checking your site for part 3.

Rick H
Rick H

This is a well-documented article, and I respect your stand on the matter. I cannot say that I agree, nor can I say that i disagree. There are many who take the opposite view and claim their view is based on fact, just as you used the word “fact” early in this article. Here’s how I’m dealing with it as a 60-year-old grandpa. My daughter is a paramedic and reads a lot. She conferred with her pediatrician and chose not to vaccinate her children. Our daughter-in-law is a nurse and has a new-born. She WILL be vaccinating. Where do I… Read more »


Hey Nicole, this was one extremely interesting read! You break down and explain what moral scares are so well – I have never heard about the term until today but have always been aware of the general idea it describes when observing people and our behavior.  I see it happening almost everywhere I look. I can totally understand it though, being affected by the horrible things life can throw at us drives a person to look for answers or for something to blame. I see it in myself too.  Looking for answers to anything, especially these days with the endless… Read more »