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Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading a book by Daniel Dennett called Breaking the Spell, in which he proposes to give an evolutionary account of the rise and spread of religion.

There’s a lot wrong with this book, in different and interconnected ways.  Not the least of it is the fact that Dennett is self-consciously writing for “a wider audience,” including (he tells u) religious people, and like a lot of academics who set out to do that, he uses lots and lots and lots of exclamation points !!!!!

Okay.  He usually only uses them  one at a time, but you know what I mean.

Then there’s the absolutely cringe-making use of the word “bright” to mean “atheist”–a fad that came and thankfully went several years ago.

I’ve read other Dennett, and he’s usually a first rate writer.  I’d recommend Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to anybody and everybody. 

But he’s a philosopher and not a biologist, and it shows, in both books.  In Breaking the Spell it sometimes just makes him sound addled.

But as much fun as it can  be, at times, to beat up on somebody like Dennett–what is it about the New Atheists that makes them all so damned smug?–what the book has brought to my attention is something else altogether, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I have been, on this blog and elsewhere, as strong an advocate of leaving everybody to  make their own choices, even if their choices are flagrantly and dangerously wrong.

I am, in fact, more and more convinced that this is the only acceptable political stance.  Goverments constructed to save people from themselves always end in totalitarianisms.  There is no place else they can end.

But although I think governments must always and everywhere take stands of neutrality on their citizens decisions about their own lives–that they must let us all go to  hell in our own handbaskets, even if they think they know better–that is not the same thing as saying that I’m a cultural or philosophical or moral relativist.

I do see that some decisions are intrinsically wrong, and that some people are wedded to ignorance the way a Cleveland Browns fan is wedded to disappointment.

That was true of me twenty years ago and it’s true of me now.  What’s changed is this:  I seem to be less and less willing to call out against certain kinds of stupidity.

One of the reasons, I think, is that I get worried that if I deliver one of my once-famous acerbic diatribes against some kinds of idiotic thought or behavior, I will inadvertantly give aid, comfort and empowerment to the “we know best for you and we should get to decide” population.

This situation is more serious than it may seem at first, because one of the reasons I am so convinced that “let people make their own choices” is the best way to go is that I expect the culture at large to provide a large element of push back.

In other words, if you do something, or say something, that is manifestly stupid or wrong, I expect people to tell you it’s stupid or wrong, and in detail.

I’m comfortable with letting you make your own decisions about your finances because I expect  your friends, family,  neighbors and the entirety of Facebook to rip you a new one if you spend your rent money on lottery tickets.  I’m comfortable letting you smoke yourself into oblivion because I expect the nurses to be less than sympathetic when you get lung cancer.  I’m comfortable with letting you decide to get falling down drunk every morning by ten because I expect the people around you to tell you how worthless you are for doing it and the government to refuse  you disability payments because of it.

Okay, we’ll  have to work on that last one.

A world in which you can make your own choices but can’t escape the consequences (social and otherwise) of them is very different from a world that exists to enable them,  even if the enabling only amounts to not telling you what you don’t want to hear so that we don’t hurt your feelings.

But the real mess caused by people not speaking out–for my reason, or for politeness, or whatever–against stupidity and ignorance does not come in encounters with confirmed drunkards and people w ho believe they’re going to get rich w ith the lottery.

The real mess comes with the spread of the kind of misinformation that is not only wrong but that spreads like wildfire, and that results in demonstrably, and easily preventable, physical harm.

The two things that strike me as fitting this description most clearly come from two different sides of the political aisle, but are still oddly connected.

Those things are faith healing and the anti-vaccination  movement.

I think that it’s more than a little interesting that so many of the areas that lead to significant citizen push-back against experts have to do with medicine.

But these are two areas in which the evidence is crystal clear and widely available.

It’s not just that there is “no evidence” linking vaccinations with autism.  It’s that there’s very good evidence linking vaccinations to lowered levels (much lowered levels) of childhood mortality. 

And not just childhood mortality, either.

 The year Matt was born, there were a  group of mothers in Stamford, CT, who adamantly refused to allow their children to be given the pertussis vaccine.  They were all  highly education women and their fear was of the fact that, in very rare cases, the vaccine  has caused serious illness and sometimes death.

By the end of the season, every single one of their children were dead from whooping cough.

At the moment, it is not possible to require such parents to vaccinate their children. 

And, as far as I’m concerned, the government should not be allowed to require any such thing.

Parents have the natural right to make any decisions for their children that will not result in permanent, significant physical harm or death, and in spite of a few cases like the one I just mentioned, most refusals to vaccinate result in no physical harm at all.

In fact, they so seldom result in  harm that even the one requirement the state is allowed to make–that children cannot attend a school (public or otherwise) is regularly ignored in cases where the parents are adamantly opposed.

This is especially true when the reasons are religious–in fact, most state abuse and neglect laws specifically exempt the choice of faith healing and the rejection of vaccines–but Jenny McCarthy has nothing to fear.  There may be some resistance to her refusal to vaccinate, but her convictions will be accommodated in the end.

The faith  healing cases, when they come up, always sound much more extreme and much less excusable–partially, I think, because so few of us find faith healing credible these days.

It’s one thing, we think, to be worried about the side effects of a vaccine.  We all worry about the side effects of the drugs we take. It’s a judgment call, and any of us might make the wrong judgment call one of these days.

 Faith healing, on the other hand, just sounds completely bizarre.  Most of us cannot imagine a case in which we  had a fever of 105, or our child did, where we would opt to pray instead of calling 911.

We might pray as well as calling 911, but we would most assuredly call 911.

Court cases on faith healing deaths have been all over the map.  Such incidents almost always provoke community outrage–and this is especially true in cases in which whatever t he illness was was something that can reliably cured with standard medical attention.

An organization called CHILD–Children’s Healthcare Is A Legal Duty–was started by a group of (now former) Christian Science parents whose children died in an epidemic of bacterial  meningitis.  It’s a disease fairly easy to cure with a course of antibiotics, but without the course of antibiotics it tends to lead to a prolonged and agonizing death.

The former Christian Science parents are now committed to getting the laws changed that allow parents to reject  standard medical care for their children, but by and large, I would not.

It is simply true that, in the vast majority of cases, such a choice will do no harm.  And in those cases–and maybe even in the most extreme ones–the choice to allow government to  make the requirement will do far more harm, not  just to the individual child and family, but to the community at large.

But none of this works–none of it–if people like me are  holding their tongues instead of jumping into the conversation and making the case for standard medicine.  And vaccinations.  And evolution over “creation science” and “intelligent design.”  And…

You see what I mean.

There’s a lot of stupid out there.  And none of it is being  helped by keeping our mouths shut when it blossoms onto the scene.

If I had to name the single  most destructive thing about the Nurse Ratcheds/Delores Umbrages/Mary Ewings of the world, it would be just this–

That it makes so many of us reluctant to speak up against real evils for fear of giving them an excuse.

Written by janeh

July 9th, 2013 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Wrong'

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  1. Is the harm to the community greater to require medical care for all sick children (something you’d think would be a given for any parent) or to have children dying of easily treated conditions? Especially when those conditions may be infectious and affect MY child, even though I’ve vaccinated him?

    The most recent faith healing case I read about was parents who let their 11 year old daughter die of diabetes. Apparently they didn’t get the part where God GAVE her diabetes, and praying wasn’t going to budge that. This was after they’d lost a previous child to the same disease.

    I’m all for allowing people to do weird shit to their kids in the name of raising them as they please. But we draw the line at sexual abuse, hitting or neglect, as a society. Letting kids die is the ultimate abusive neglect, in a way. Do you think the government (since there is no way to either authorize or restrain private entities) should just turn a blind eye to actual abuse?

    Public health interests don’t allow people to crap in buckets and throw it out the window where others walk because, well, cholera & typhoid. Likewise, I don’t see why we have to tolerate non-vaccinators who depend on herd immunity and endanger us all when their kids get sick. I put my kid at (minimal) risk of bad side effects to protect not only him, but all his age-mates. And even those who are vaccinated can be infected again, at times. Especially if the disease mutates while rampaging through an unvaccinated population.

    I was appalled to learn that California’s subsidized low-income chid care program no longer requires tuberculosis vaccination for either children enrolled or their caretakers. Many of the children are undocumented, or travel back & forth to Mexico regularly. This, while we enjoy an upsurge of antibiotic resistant tuberculosis cases.

    We theoretically limit the power of government all over the place. Yes, it’s getting out of control at the moment. In my more optimistic moments I think it’s not too late to get it back yet. Hey, Rick Perry is hanging up his hat. (unless he’s just clearing the way for a presidential run) The “tell you how to run your life, conception to grave” folks are getting some serious pushback. Yay!

    So we should not let parents allow children to die who can easily live. We just shouldn’t. But at the same time, we shouldn’t interfere with any weird upbringing short of actual abuse. I think that’s a fairly easy line to draw and maintain.


    9 Jul 13 at 11:47 am

  2. Worth distinguishing between stupid and immoral. I realized a few years ago that a lot of my criticism boiled down to “you need to be smarter.” I’ve been–I hope–a little quieter since.

    There is, of course, the person who knows better but does something anyway out of impatience, greed or lust. But you have to know the individual. I am more likely to drop the acquaintance than to berate them.

    As for immoral–well, I blame the Sixties, but then I often do. Still, I don’t think you could muster a corporal’s guard of liberals who think something can be constitutionally permitted and still subject to criticism on moral grounds–or, for that matter, that anything they regard as immoral could be constitutionally protected. Sadly, maybe half the conservatives agree.

    But Lymaree, there hasn’t even been a theoretical limit on the power of government since at least the Great Society–more honestly, the New Deal. Welcome to the living Constitution.


    9 Jul 13 at 4:20 pm

  3. OK, I don’t have the answer to this issue. The only solution seems to be that all that can be done is to allow parents to choose for their children unless the child is very young, the disease definitely terminal and the treatment definitely safe and effective – and that would have to be proven in a court of law before removing the parents’ right to decide on their children’s behalf.

    The system can take a small number of refuseniks on the vaccination issue, and that wouldn’t bother me much however idiotic their stance.

    But although I have been very busy enjoying myself lately snf hsven’t had much time to post, I have been puzzled by the story of the Stanford mothers, all of whose children died of whooping cough. ALL of them? How many are we talking about here? There are few infections with a 100% mortality rate, and whooping cough isn’t one of them. I’d suspect some kind of statistical anomaly, or some confusion in the story in which perhaps they all caught the disease (which in itself would be unusual, unless the children were all in very close and frequent contact) but only some of them died. As reported, it sounds like an urban myth.

    Oh, and I think that the argument in favour of vaccinations isn’t that you’re protecting your neighbour’s child, but that you’re protecting your own. Why SHOULD I put my child at risk because doing so might help others? Myself, sure, if I choose to take that risk, but my child?

    And I generally support vaccination campaigns, although they seem to vaccinate against so many things now that I sometimes wonder if they are all necessary. I was a child at the end of the campaigns that eliminated TB as a common health threat in my home province. No one objected to testing, vaccination, and immediate X-ray if you showed antibodies in response to the test. Most people knew families who had been afflicted by TB, especially most people in rural areas. It’s easy to be complacent about vaccination now.


    10 Jul 13 at 8:25 am

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