Echo Chambers and the Vaccination Debate

I first became familiar with the term “echo chamber” when I was visiting the sciencebasedmedicine.org site a year ago. An “echo chamber”, I learned, is composed of people who insulate and isolate themselves from world perspectives that differ from their own, and surround themselves with people who echo their own beliefs and opinions. I discovered on the sciencebasedmedicine.org site that people who accuse others of belonging to an “echo chamber” are often living in their own echo chamber.

And, really, who can blame anyone for wanting to surround themselves with people who think and believe as they do, and share their opinions about stuff? An echo chamber is a comfortable place to live. When we live in an echo chamber we get a lot of kudos and pats on the back and thumbs up for espousing our beliefs – our little egos are given free rein to grow and prosper, to puff up and expand. We can feel really good about ourselves because everyone else agrees with us and thinks we are cool.

It takes courage to leave our echo chambers – to peek out of our little caves and venture forth into the Big World of Ideas. It takes courage to allow others to question our most cherished beliefs, and to allow ourselves to question them, as well.

Right now I’m seeing two major echo chambers when it comes to the vaccination debate. In one chamber there are the anti-vaccination folk who can rattle off statistics and personal anecdotes about the dire effects of vaccinations on one’s health, and the ineffectiveness of some vaccines – such as the flu vaccine – in stopping disease. In the other echo chamber there are folk who can rattle off statistics and personal anecdotes about how the use of vaccines has dramatically stopped the spread of diseases such as polio and small pox, and has helped to eradicate some diseases entirely.

From my perspective – sitting by myself outside the chambers and listening to all the echoes coming out of them – it’s all kind of fascinating.  From my perspective, the people involved in these debates – whether they’re pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination – are actually a lot more closely connected with each other in the way they view the world than they may think they are.  Both groups see a material world that has danger in it – that can be capricious and random and scary. The people in both groups are motivated by a fear of getting sick – the anti-vaccination people are afraid the vaccines will make them and their loved ones unhealthy, and the pro-vaccination people are afraid that NOT taking the vaccines will make them and their loved ones unhealthy.

As I see it, there are no bad guys here – there are just people who want to help keep their loved ones safe, and are doing what they think is the right thing to do to help make that happen.

Because I’ve always identified myself as a Christian Scientist – and a lot of people think of Christian Scientists as “the ones who don’t go to doctors” – I’ve often been asked if I had my children vaccinated. The answer is yes. This is not something of which I’m either ashamed or proud. It’s not something I’d brag about in the pro-vaccination echo chamber, and not something I’d feel guilty to admit in the anti-vaccination echo chamber.  (I’ve also had vaccinations myself – right after my oldest son was born I was vaccinated for rubella; I went in for a tetanus shot once when I fell kiester-first through a hole in the porch and snagged my legs on rusty nails as I was going down – I still crack up every time I think about that adventure – I am such a doof; and several years ago I voluntarily went to the doctor and got the pertussis vaccination to help alleviate the fears of the people around me when I began working at a high school during a time when pertussis was running rampant through my state. [As a youngster I had mumps, measles, and chicken pox – I was quickly healed of all of them – and a titer test later confirmed I carried the antibodies.])

When I took my sons in to be vaccinated I had to sign consent forms that listed a lot of possible side effects to the vaccinations, and I remember feeling frightened by what I read there. I did not sign those forms glibly – my sons are the most precious people in the world to me. As a Christian Scientist I used my understanding of God – of Love – to know that those vaccinations had no power to hurt my sons – that they were held safe in the arms of Love. My sons, I reasoned, are the perfect, whole, untouched, unaltered, unmarred, complete reflections of Life and Love – never for a moment separated from all that is good. As ideas of God, their real spiritual being is always safe, and never for a moment separated from the consciousness of Truth.

I’d taken the sons in to be vaccinated because my husband had requested that I get them vaccinated, and because it seemed the responsible thing for me to do for the other people in my community who don’t share with me the same perspective about the reality of Spirit, and the unreality of matter. It felt, to me, that NOT taking my sons in for vaccinations would have been, in a way, like forcing my beliefs on other people.

But I have to admit to harboring some respect for the people who consciously withstand the peer pressure and refuse to follow the herd into whatever echo chamber is loudest. It ain’t easy to stand alone for what you think is right.

And this reminds me of a dream I had years ago.  In this dream I was maybe 12 or 13 years old – and there was this ominous, oppressive feeling to the atmosphere. The sky was dark and roiling with purple storm clouds. A bus filled with my classmates and their families pulled up. All the popular kids were either on that bus, or getting onto it. In the dream I realized that everyone was getting on the bus to go get exterminated – that people were voluntarily going off to get shot or something to save mankind.  And everyone was laughing and congratulating each other for their self-sacrifice, and patting each other on the back. And I really wanted to get on that bus, too, and be with the other popular people. But my Dad (who is not a CS, by the way) came running out of the house and down to the bus stop to stop me from getting on the bus. “No,” he yelled to me, “You can’t get on that bus! We’re going skiing in Sun Valley next week!”

So I didn’t get on the bus. I watched it pull away, loaded with my friends. It felt bad. At first. But hey, I got over it. I mean, I had Sun Valley to look forward to, right?

The chemist, the botanist, the druggist, the doctor, and the nurse equip the medicine with their faith, and the beliefs which are in the majority rule. When the general belief endorses the inanimate drug as doing this or that, individual dissent or faith, unless it rests on Science, is but a belief held by a minority, and such a belief is governed by the majority. – Mary Baker Eddy

An interesting youtube clip about the safety of vaccinations since 1989.

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17 thoughts on “Echo Chambers and the Vaccination Debate

  1. That’s a very interesting post. I’ll have to think about that. I try to stay out of the vaccination debate…because I see it as un-Scientific…and because as the mother of three boys who were vaccinated and who, to varying degrees, are wearing the “Parisian garment” of autism…I think I’d better not spend my time attributing material causes to beliefs. But I haven’t really talked to other Christian Scientists about it. It’s nice to read someone else’s point of view. 😉

    • I hear you, lampwright! I’ve tried to stay out of it, too – it’s not something that can be discussed in quick soundbites, you know? But today I decided to gather up my courage and share my take on it all. I, of course, am not an official representative of any group or organization here – this is just me being… me. I’m actually kind of surprised ANYone bothered to read this one. 🙂

      • I think the sound bite thing is the real issue. you went to the trouble of writing out your ideas here in thoughtful detail. But when I run into the subject, it is usually on facebook…where there is no room to explain. And what would I say? “I have come upon enough evidence that this issue is tied to autism to worry me…but, oh wait, never mind, I don’t believe in physical causation anyway?” Lol

        I did go through a terrible period when I loked back at the shots I blithely brought my children, too…realized that I – a Christian Science mom – could have avoided them, and realized that my real motive for taking them had been fear….and then I thought my fear had damaged my children.

        But as my understanding of Christian Science has grown, I have felt I have to let go of that position. Neither good nor evil comes from matter….even shots.

  2. I love the way you’ve thought through this issue, lampwright! I was seeing quick little soundbites on FB about this and it was really disturbing to me – people in the anti- camp are being bullied for their stance, labeled stupid and ignorant and uneducated, and there is a lot of pressure being put on them to get these immunizations. There’s a lot of bandwagon-hopping going on there. And I have to admit that I can’t help but wonder if the folks who make and sell these vaccines for profit aren’t encouraging this. Even according to the folks that make the flu vaccine, it isn’t very effective this year, and it wasn’t last year, either, and it didn’t work so well the year before that. Yet we’re all being pressured into getting these flu vaccines that – from a human standpoint – might actually do more harm than good.

    • Did you know that Raggedy Anne was an anti-vaccination symbol? The doll was so limp because it was in memory of a girl who died from being vaccinated back in the early days when they weren’t at all safe. I often wonder why the anti-vacc. group does not adopt it again.

      But really, I suspect my time is better spent knowing that any actions promoted out of a desire for the public good cannot harm.

  3. lampwright – I just began reading your blogpost about your trip to China – you are a WONDERFUL writer! And I love your story – beautiful! I’m going to read more of it when I get home from work tonight. Thank you so much for sharing it! I can’t find a button to push for “liking” it, but if I could I would. 🙂

    • Yeah, my blog has comments turned off. If you feel the need to comment, the blue link at the top of any given essay should lead to the comments section on my LiveJournal, which is where I posted it when I was in China. 😉

      My name is Jagi, by the way. J-short a-j-long E. 😉

  4. You mention that you applaud those who consciously withstand the peer pressure and refuse to follow the herd into whatever echo chamber is loudest. We stood up to the peer pressure and opted to vaccinate.

    Vaccinating my children was one of the most difficult things I did as got out of Christian Science. At the time there was a heated debate/discussion in the “CS Friendly Mom & Dad” group about possible side effects, and that people should pray to know the vaccines couldn’t hurt the children, etc. Most people with non-CS spouses vaccinated to make their non-CS spouse “feel comfortable” and “allay the fears” of their in-laws.

    We live in an area with a very low vaccination rate, and I have lost mommy-friends over the issue of vaccinating. My husband and I grew up unvaccinated and relied heavily on herd-immunity, my husband got measles, chickenpox and rubella as a child, I got chickenpox, and whooping cough. These are not pleasant illnesses, and as our parents were CS, they went untreated — our parents would argue that they called the CSPs, but our CSPs were unable to heal as Jesus did, so there were no instantaneous healings, just a lot of misery, we don’t want to put our children through that misery.

    My mother (a CS), upon hearing that we had opted to vaccinate the children accused me of poisoning them, and setting them up for a lifetime of being experimented on by big pharma (conspiracy theories abound). It has been hard, but we’re standing firm with our decision — we’ve also taken steps to catch up on some of the vaccinations we missed out on as children, MMR, TDAP, etc.

    • Kat, I think you are very courageous. You are one of those people who has ventured out of the Echo Chamber you were raised in. You have not been afraid to make the choices you felt you needed to make to protect your family, even though you knew you’d probably be judged for them. I have great respect for you.

  5. Interesting post, Karen. I’m firmly in the vaccination camp (although I don’t think I’m in an echo chamber!), but I’m old enough to remember a time before some of these vaccines. I know of people who were blinded or deafened by measles; a friend’s father spent 40 years in an iron lung because of polio; several students missed weeks of school when whooping cough flared up a few years ago; and one of my very favorite kids died within 48 hours of contracting meningitis.

    When there was something I could do to prevent a problem for my own kids, I did it.

  6. Wow! Thanks for taking on this most relevant and controversial subject. It figures that the MapCapOne would approach it in a whole new way 🙂

    Favorite part … your acknowledgement that the two opposing sides are “actually a lot more closely connected with each other in the way they view the world than they may think they are”. Their common ground is a fear of material sickness and a desire that no harm befall their loved ones. Beautiful! Discovering the paradoxical relationship within a polarized discussion is so healing. Thanks for that.

    And what a demonstration from everyone writing here that for thoughtful parents … CS or not … there is no easy decision here. While we can rest in Good’s hands no matter what law is made, our hope is that freedom can reign. It seems that there is so much blaming of the worlds ills on non-confromity … “if only we were all of one belief, one mind-set, then all would be well in our world.” Hopefully no one echo chamber will ever drawn out the voice of the other. Hopefully diversity of thought will continue to flourish, help us all grow and learn from each other, and have us making better decisions for ourselves and our world. with love & appreciation ~

    • rhythmrancher – you totally rock!!! Thank you! There is so much demonizing going on in the world – and I see it in the vaccine debate, too – from both sides. This was another one of those posts that I was afraid to put out there – I knew it would not be universally well-received. 🙂 But maybe BECAUSE I was afraid of posting it, I posted it. I know. I am so weird. 🙂 (I posted this on the amazon religion forum and got totally blasted. Never a dull moment there. 🙂 )

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