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.
- 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
- 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.
- Water tests negative – People believe the test and look elsewhere for the cause. Moral scare shifted to other causes.
- 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.
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 http://www.jstor.org.saintleo.idm.oclc.org/stable/25677391
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?