It is quite clear. All the studies show it. Vaccination is helping “save society” from previously common, potentially-deadly diseases.
So why do I feel so queasy about vaccination, and about the whole debate that surrounds it?
Well. What do we know about vaccination?
We know that for individuals who are vaccinated against a particular disease, such individuals (usually) do not catch the disease against which they are vaccinated.
We also know that by vaccinating a large section of the population against a particular disease, we can effectively eradicate that disease in humans.
These things are simply proven by studies and direct experience. I do not dispute them.
There is a lot we don’t know.
What organisms arise when a particular organism is eradicated or weakened? We do know, for example, that increases in deer population are correlated with increases in tick population, for example. And that by reducing the numbers of bees, we reduce pollination of plants, leading to the potential for animal and human food shortages. These things are also “proven” (or at least studied) by science.
But we seem to know very little about what happens to the environment when particular bacteria or viruses either increase or decrease in number, at least in the general case.
What happens to the general immunity of people who have been vaccinated? We know they are, for some time, protected from the disease against which they are vaccinated. Does vaccination either improve, or inhibit their immunity to other organisms? I would argue that we don’t know. Does the eradication/weakening of one viral species cause the strengthening of another virus or bacteria? Who knows for sure in each individual case? But intuition tells me it’s a possibility, and one supported by analogues such as the bee, and tick examples.
This is the kind of problem we get with all public policy decisions
made on the basis of science.
It is, in fact, possible to overstate the importance of science in making public policy decisions.
What, I hear you say, this man is ANTI-SCIENCE?!
What I am wary of is:
Public policy: because science
I am an expert: because science
I am right: because science
This situation is clear: because science
Trust me: because science
These are all examples of the poor use of an excellent tool.
The best scientific studies are intentionally grounded in a specific thesis which may be provable, or dis-provable via specific methods. Specific studies deliberately control for, or ignore “the rest of the world” in order to provide very specific results. That is no accident. That is good science.
However, the world at large, is just not that simple. Everything actually is inter-connected. Everything is ambiguous. Specific results do not generalize beyond what they actually prove. And what the best studies prove, are very specific things.
So what should we do?
Making a decision based on science may or may not be “better” than making a decision based on intuition. It’s not possible to know everything before a decision, thus it is not possible to make only good decisions. A good decision can only be labelled as such only in hindsight (and with the benefit of history and sufficient analysis), and only when applied within a certain context. Science does not, any more than any other mechanism, help you know everything.
Decisions made “on behalf” of large numbers of people have wide-ranging consequences; beware of making them at all, or those who say that they know (anything at all) when making such decisions. Especially beware of those in public policy who believe that they can ever be “right” before making wide-ranging public policy decisions. Beware of people who say that in order to help you, you need to regard them as an “expert”, and that their expertise should necessarily carry any more weight than your “intuition”. Such people cannot help you in the way you need help; nor are they helpful in the way they think.