Purity, sanctity and self-righteousness are normally the attributes of the moral compass we associate with the reactionary right—religious zealots and gun toting, flag-waving ideologues who battle against science and reason. But are moral crusades solely a project of crazy conservatives?
“Left and right are like yin and yang,” said the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an interview with the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. “Morality binds and blinds, and when a group circles around sacred objects and sacred values, they then give up the possibility of thinking clearly about whatever they’ve sacralized. It’s easy to see this on the right…but what’s harder to see is that people on the left, if you know what they hold sacred, you can see where they deny science too.” The idea of purity, usually sexual purity, is arguably one of the more visible and harmful sacred values held by the right, but purity of what we put in our bodies has become a similarly powerful ideology on the side of the left.
To be clear, the issue is not scientifically rigorous studies on nutrition or toxins in our foods, but assumptions about the inherent goodness of “naturalness.” To illustrate how wrong this idea is, I want you to try to keep a straight face and ignore the thousands of natural toxins like cyanide and arsenic for the moment and instead consider influenza. It is perfectly natural for people to die to this virus; 18,000 people did just that during the 2009-2010 flu season and thousands more will do so by the end of Spring this year.
The flu vaccine, developed in the 1940s, is decidedly unnatural by contrast, but while we’re comparing, it’s hard to ignore the numbers. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, before the vaccine, killed between 50 and 100 million people. The first major flu outbreak after the vaccine, the Asian Flu of 1957, killed only around one million people.
So here we have one example of something “impure” saving tens of millions of people from something destructively pure and natural. But that’s not enough to stop the moral crusade against vaccines, a movement based on a fraudulent article published in 1998 in the British medical journal “The Lancet” that falsely linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine with autism.
The main worry rose from an ingredient called thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound used as a preservative in some vaccines. Though the arguments against thimerosal were arguments on correlational—not causal—links, their proponents conveniently ignored the fact that thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in 2001. Rates of autism subsequently continued to rise. An actual link between the levels of mercury in a shot, about one eighth the amount in an average tuna-sandwich, and autism was never established.
Deplorably, the article wasn’t retracted because of its unscientific nature, though it was eventually retracted in 2010 after it was revealed that the author of the article, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was receiving money from a local firm looking to sue the vaccination company. But that didn’t stop the righteous moral majority of health puritans from continuing their crusade against dangerous vaccines. The powerful anti-vaccination movement has recruited doctors, parents of children with autism and even celebrities like Jim Carrey. More than a year and a half after the “Lancet” article was retracted, a Sept. 2011 poll by Thomas Reuters-NPR found that more than a quarter of Americans still had serious concerns about the safety of vaccines.
On March 29, 2013, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released the findings of a recent study that definitively showed that “there is no relationship between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism rates in children.” Sadly, we can probably assume that this won’t do much to change the minds of those who have staked out their sacred ground in the natural and the pure, however unfounded and harmful their beliefs may be. Just as bloggers and activists like Christina England responded to critics of the anti-vaccine movement Penn and Teller by calling them “chauvinistic” and describing their arguments as feeble and bullying while conveniently ignoring the arguments themselves, we need only set our watches and wait for the righteous crusaders to claim that the CDC studies are biased or that the people who point out these inconvenient facts are somehow bad people.
Before we can jump to solving grand problems like global warming, everyone, no matter their political tendencies, has to let go of the idea that their party or side has a monopoly on truth and take our stances based on facts and ideals, not emotions and ideologies. Whether American society can pull together and figure out how to rid ourselves of something as easy and straightforward as the flu might very well be a litmus test for whether solving much more complex issues is even possible.