The Link Between Vaccines and Altruism

My mother had always told me that vaccines caused autism, and now I’m a nervous wreck.

This is not a very popular position in Claremont—my mother’s position, I mean (being a nervous wreck, on the other hand, has always been, and will most likely continue to be, all the rage). And before you think this is about to turn into the latest incarnation of That One Article that we read every year, the one that lambasts ‘liberal Claremont’ for its supposed close-minded hypocrisy and enumeration of the perils of ‘political correctness,’ let me assure you that it’s not.

The fact that it’s not a very popular position has nothing to do with politics or political correctness or anything like that, or at least it shouldn’t, because what it really comes down to is science, and science transcends those ideological divides, at least in theory. On this issue, certainly, 5C students have shown up in force as great champions of empiricism. Vaccines do not cause autism, and anyone who says otherwise is sorely mistaken.

I’m totally on board with that. But I won’t lie and say that I’m not a little spooked about it. 

I was vaccinated, but on a late schedule, as part of a plan my pediatrician worked out with my mother to offset the potential risks both of them believed in and feared. I’ve known about this for as long as I can remember, but it’s only lately that I’ve really started to consider its implications. 

Yeah, the latest measles outbreak has got me skeeved thinking over the what-ifs; but more unsettling is how I’ve been forced to look at my mother, and at myself. 

I can list some pretty good excuses for her behavior right off the bat (she was misled by my pediatrician; the facts weren’t all in at the time; the herd immunity was better back then), but at the end of the day, I believe that she made the wrong decision—in a serious way. But the cognitive dissonance arises when I try to hold the stereotypical image of the fanatical anti-vaxxer—self-absorbed and obstinate and on par with the 9/11-truthers in terms of sheer insanity—alongside the idea of the wise woman who brought me up by hand with all the tenderness in the world.

It’s the love that gets me, really—her fear of autism, while highly problematic in itself, was born out of the type of blind love that moves mountains, and the decision not to vaccinate was rooted in that same love, not in blatant disregard for scientific truth. This situation has heightened my sensitivity to the possible crises of cognitive dissonance that are an everyday reality for students who were raised with values very different from the ones enshrined here. 

While I still afford the argument that the climate here is hostile to discourse zero credence, I’ve come to recognize how great a privilege it is to have grown up with a Weltanschauung generally compatible with, or at least amenable to, the prevailing ideas here on campus. But more to the point, the example of my mother’s choice finds me more attuned than ever before to the challenges that lie in wait for me as an adult human.  

I first realized that my parents didn’t have all the answers back in high school, when their reactionary (and somewhat hysterical) views on marijuana use betrayed a certain ignorance, I thought. It was a liberating kind of disillusionment, and it fueled the excitement I held about entering college and becoming more independent.

Now that I’m nearing the end of my time here, inching ever closer to that day they turn me out of the gates and into the real world, I’m coming to know that real independence is not a thing to be taken lightly. It’s scary as hell, and it’s a good thing I’m positioned to make some pretty terrible mistakes here.

I’d like to think that Pomona has taught me to think critically, and I’d say that it has—insofar as I have engaged with a lot of new ideas here. I may come from a largely ‘progressive’ background into which these new ideas are pretty readily assimilated, but each encounter with them has changed my views—radicalized them, complicated them or developed them further.

But so far, most of my critical thinking has taken place here on campus, within this particular intellectual milieu, and I fear for my ability to keep up the critical ball, so to speak, in real-life situations. 

In a decade or two, the public will be divided over some other health-related, hot-button issue, and I’ll be forced to look at all the facts while weathering the tides of popular opinion—and, of course, dealing with those twin wild cards that influence so much of our behavior: fear and love.

That decision, and all my decisions, will have actual implications for which I will be responsible, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that. It’s one thing to theorize about the kinds of decisions I want to make in my life from my little cell in Sontag; it’s another thing to put them into practice. If only there were a way to inoculate against uncertainty. 

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