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The Sins of Institutionalized Science Brought on the Anti-vaccine Movement

TL;DR: Some groups in the US might believe that institutions such as large corporations and the government are trying to manipulate them using science. Given the history of scientific abuse and the narratives following these groups, it may be effective to disconnect science from the large organizations that to this day primarily fund and control it.

Why I chose this topic: A lot of the papers I’ve reviewed for SciCommBites have touched on the accessibility of science. The modern organization of scientific research is highly influenced by profit motives on the part of large organizations and research journals, and I wanted to explore the issues that arise from that.

On some level, anti-vaccine beliefs are understandable.

They’re reasonable in the way it’s reasonable for a child to be scared of the dark. They don’t know for certain that nothing’s coming to get them. There could be something under the bed or in the closet or sitting where their pile of laundry used to be.

Eventually, though, kids grow up. They learn there’s nothing lurking in the shadows–but how do they find that out?

Well, one day they notice the pile doesn’t move.

They fall asleep with the closet open and survive.

They check under the bed and see that nobody’s there. Eventually, you realize there was nothing to be afraid of at all.

Now imagine you’re a kid who hasn’t learned that yet. The dark is still confusing and terrifying, and a strange man locks you in a pitch-black bedroom–with creaky doors and a weird moaning sound coming from the air vent–and tells you it’s in your best interest to just go to sleep.

For some people, in a world where they can’t verify research for themselves, that strange man is Science.

The Reason Behind the Distrust

The metaphor doesn’t hold up, of course. There’s no direct benefit to sleeping in a creepy room, while vaccinations save millions of lives every year, and children aren’t helping to spread highly preventable and dangerous diseases by asking for nightlights. Still, in a world where it is completely unfeasible for every person to verify every experiment that has ever been done, trust–trust in scientific institutions, trust in healthcare providers, trust in scientists–is the only option. For that child to feel any level of security in that dark room, they have to trust the person putting them there. Likewise, for people to feel any level of security subjecting themselves to medical procedures, they need to trust the people behind the interventions. A lot of them don’t.

That’s the true issue: Science, not science. Most people who distrust vaccines aren’t contending with the scientific method. Instead, you see conspiracy theories about vaccinations being excuses to microchip people, a way to control the population, or not being as safe as research says. All of these issues ultimately aren’t about science itself; the issue is the distrust towards who the people believe would twist scientific discoveries or lie to them–organizations like the US government or major corporations like Moderna and Pfizer.

For some communities, this fear isn’t unfounded. I am vaccinated for COVID-19, but I also deeply empathize with members of black communities that were traumatized by stories of the US government deceiving black men in the Tuskegee Experiment for the sake of ulterior motives. 31 US states have not outlawed forced sterilization, and California just outlawed its use on prisoners eight years ago. Even for communities that haven’t experienced systemic harms, our media is rife with stories of governments conspiring against their citizens for the sake of some greater conspiracy.

That fear has become so ingrained in the public conscience that it’s become its own identity. Opposition to Science becomes synonymous to opposition to these major entities and distrust that they work for the people. Following that, it makes sense that the Republican party, the reported party of small government, has such high concentrations of people resisting Science as a whole. Science is just a tool–but it’s become so conflated with the body of scientific discovery and the people thought to be controlling it that it’s become political itself.

What We Could Do

Distrust of science as a whole, political polarization around science, and vehement refusal of life-saving intervention follows readily. The kid tries to escape the creepy room at all costs, untrusting of the dark and afraid the strange man doesn’t have their best interests at heart, and hurts themselves and others in the process.

No opinion piece is going to fully capture the nature of political polarization around science, and no opinion piece is going to be able to supply a cure-all solution that will fix everything. Even still, I am of the belief that science and Science need to be decoupled.

In the minds of a lot of people, incredible interventions like the mRNA vaccines are tools of bad actors first. As long as institutions that people don’t trust are driving the creation of those interventions, that may never change–so maybe those interventions have to stop driving them.

There’s no way to say what that would look like. It might look like decentralizing the sources of scientific research funding to allow for more public-facing labs. It might look like limiting the amount of influence major corporations or the federal government can have on scientific research. It might mean taking science out of the hands of large corporations altogether. However, it plays out, Science needs to go–and science needs to become about people learning again.

If science can break away from the larger structures that currently define it, we might see a depolarization of science that allows us to tackle these issues as a society again and not as two deeply divided parties. It could allow us to confront the real issues driving the political division around science–and it might just save lives.

Edited by Iris Du

Cover image credit: Photo by Artem Podrez

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