The argument over measles shots is really about bigger questions – if citizens are free to reject government authority and if science merits the public’s respect.
By now, most people are aware of the political debate about the proper role of government. These days, it focuses on the size of government budgets, taxes and the effect of government regulation on private enterprise.
The measles controversy, caused by the unwillingness of some people to let their children get shots and the willingness of some politicians to support them, goes far beyond that familiar debate. It goes to the core question of the relationship between individuals and their government.
This question was at the heart of the American Revolution, caused to a great degree by British suppression of Americans’ human rights and freedom.
Take the Third Amendment to the Constitution, which just about everybody likes. It bans the government from lodging soldiers in private homes in peacetime, and only by law in wartime. Previously, the British, when short on barracks space, had simply required soldiers to be lodged on private property.
The British imposed government demands over people’s rights. The Bill of Rights was meant to deny government such excessive power.
One reason that some parents fight measles vaccinations is simply the historic opposition to governmental power. With all the political campaigning against big government, some people have come to see the requirement for measles shots as just another example of its excesses.
Government exists to protect public health and safety, and it alone can carry out that responsibility.
Conservative advocates say people should not get government aid, but should be left to sink or swim economically in the marketplace. But public health and safety cannot be a matter of sink or swim.
The initial reaction of some potential Republican presidential candidates, saying that parents ought to decide on measles shots independent of government control, amounted to pandering to GOP primary voters who oppose “big” government.
These same Republican leaders backed off, at least to some degree, perhaps because they realized there are many parents whose children might be unnecessarily exposed to measles carried by unprotected school mates. Maybe they also recognized that government has a legitimate and necessary role to play.
Resistance to government requirements results not only from a desire to limit government but also from distrust. If you believe it is bloated, corrupt, all about self-enrichment, and, worst of all, consciously seeking to substitute socialism for freedom, can you trust anything it says?
Having grown to distrust government authority, some may end up distrusting any authority whose word they must accept. Good science, which does not do government’s bidding, gets the same lack of deference as government itself.
In good science, ideas are advanced and tested, and the results of carefully designed tests are used to reach conclusions. In addition, any finding can be challenged by new discoveries and research, and challengers are encouraged.
Some findings are continually tested. Did dinosaurs walk the earth millions of years ago? Is the universe getting larger? Are measles shots effective and do they cause other illnesses?
One of the benefits of good science is that scientists spend years learning how to design and conduct reliable tests to make sure they are correct. They often collect massive amounts of data and subject it to careful analysis. That ensures that scientific findings are not a matter of opinion, but an effort to get as close to absolute truth as possible.
If people worry about the side effects of measles shots, science must try to find out if there is any basis for these worries. No problems have been found and the benefits of the shots are well known, so they continue being given. The known and proven benefits far outweigh the unknown and unproven risks.
The problem with measles shots may have been caused by one study of 12 children in Britain years ago. Based on phony data, it sensationally claimed the shots caused autism. The author sought fame, but, while it took years, he was finally caught in his lies and his conclusions rejected.
The unfounded prejudice against good science is fostered by politicians whose stock-in-trade is causing distrust and who are willing to assert their politics-based opinions as having equal weight with research-based science. People may get to pay the price.
Government and science each have legitimate and necessary jobs to do – public health and safety and searching for the truth — and, to that degree at least, both are worthy of respect.
Right now, that means children should get measles shots.