A recent YouGov poll, surveying a thousand people (hopefully not fully representative of the entire US public) found that a significant percentage of American adults believe a theory thoroughly and utterly debunked by the scientific community – that early childhood vaccinations can cause autism.
The influence of “mommy bloggers” and uninformed celebrities peddling parenting books have helped spread this pernicious rumour, so its persistence is not surprising. But what is surprising is that the group most convinced was the youngest polled: 21% of people between 18 and 29 believe in a link, a full eight points above the next age group.
As a millennial – I’m 25 – it took the wind out of my sails to find that out. I read the survey in its entirety while sitting on a stalled underground train, and I wanted to make my way around the carriage to anyone who might be my age, double-checking they understood the link between an ill-informed group of parents that refuses to listen to reason and the recent outbreak of measles cases at Disneyland.
Besides the fact that there is nothing more cartoonishly threatening to childhood than something that ruins Disneyland, the study has lead to an infuriating response from pundits, who, always eager to bash millennials, have picked up the story and whaled away with a kind of righteous glee, as if young people were cheaply made, science-blind piñatas.
I hate to say it, but I’m kind of inclined to agree with them.
Can so many of my cohorts be so obtuse? I’d prefer it if it turned out that one in five young people didn’t know how to correctly answer a poll. That issue, at least, could be fixed with simple instruction from a research professional. “Anti-vaccination” just doesn’t seem like a label that should belong to young people. It’s a label that should belong to wingnuts who think that colloidal silver bracelets can heal your diabetes and improve your golf swing.
Responding to the poll, Talking Points Memo publisher Josh Marshall called millennials “total dumbasses”, but there are slightly more nuanced explanations than simple stupidity.
Good news: millennials less racist, more pro-rights than any generation; bad news: total dumbasses on vaccination https://t.co/dI1JxZGAOC
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) January 31, 2015
The problem is that the conversation around vaccines has grown and flourished on both sides. Regardless of the facts, it makes both appear to be viable options, and it seems like nothing can be done about that. According to some understandably frustrated researchers profiled in the New Yorker last year, highlighting the ridiculousness of misconceptions such as this can “inadvertently draw more attention to the counterclaim” and strengthen the resolve of those who insist on believing it. In short, even if we were to develop vaccines against ignorance, there would be a significant amount of people who wouldn’t take them.
Perhaps millennials deserve to be called dumbasses. When we’re asked what we think about vaccinations, we should react as if we’ve been asked for our position on gravity. But what happens next? Will we learn from this in time, for example, to quash the baffling anti-pasteurisation movement? Or stop the growing number of Californians who insist that eating clay isn’t just for misbehaved kindergarteners any more? Who knows. For now, pray that there’s enough disdain in all of us to marginalise this anti-vaccine trend, inoculate your kids and take comfort that even though we’re still fuzzy on vaccines, every single person in the US, I’m pretty sure, 100% believes in climate change.
Originally published in The Guardian in 2015.