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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