Why I’m fascinated by Anti-Vaxxers and think that’s good to have them

I live in Poland and keep seeing people around me shaking heads in disbelief that some Americans believe that vaccination causes autism. But the fact that some believe that Earth is flat and a rising number is against vaccination exposes a fundamental cultural trait that in my opinion makes America all-in-all the most powerful nation.

[Full disclosure: I’m totally for vaccination]

Anti-vaccination parents brought their child into the ER after their dog bit the kid

The pinnacle of choice

The recent discussion about vaccination somehow reminds me a great TED talk “On the art of choosing” by Sheena Iyengar who presented an interesting experiment with Anglo- and Asian-American children. Kids were divided into three groups and asked to do the anagram puzzles. However, one group could choose whichever they want, the second group was instructed by Miss Smith and the third one was told that anagrams had been chosen by their mothers. The results were amazing:

Such small differences in the way we administered the activity yielded striking differences in how well they performed. Anglo-Americans, they did two and a half times more anagrams when they got to choose them, as compared to when it was chosen for them by Miss Smith or their mothers. It didn’t matter who did the choosing, if the task was dictated by another, their performance suffered. (…) In contrast, Asian-American children performed best when they believed their mothers had made the choice, second best when they chose for themselves, and least well when it had been chosen by Miss Smith.

This “pinnacle in the way American practice choice” — as Iyengar called it — was also pretty evident to me during my first visit in US. The first thing that stroke me at university was that American students try to sit in front rows during the lecture while Poles do their best to take a sit in the back and keep quite. Polish students are pretty reluctant to ask a question even if they don’t understand or don’t agree with something. Most of them prefer to keep it for themselves and don’t stand out in a fear of embarassing themselves (naturally, this behavior might be attributed somehow to 50 years of communism that tried to weed out any individualism or the fact that higher education in Poland is free but that’s a different story).

In contrast, American students from my classes were comfortable with questioning everything. They didn’t spare a moment to clearly alert that they don’t understand something or don’t agree.

Sceptical animus

Taking something for granted just wasn’t an option and I realized that’s the same feature that Thorstein Veblen attributed to Jews in his essay “The Intellectual Pre-Eminence of Jews in Modern Europe”. Veblen states that huge intellectual achievements by jewish scientists are derived from the fact that for more than two thousands years as a nation they didn’t have home and state. Because “they were perpetual outsiders, they were able to question everything, even the most cherished of assumptions”[1]. I think both Americans and Jews share the same “sceptical animus” which is reflected in the number of Nobel Prize winners and places like Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. And owing to this “constant questioning”, “distruption” and ignoring “nah, it’s not gonna work” we ended up with Uber (“private driver for everyone”), AirBnB (sharing an apartment to someone completely strange) or Twitter (only 140 characters).

So what about anti-vaccine movement? I guess it could have started only in America because no matter how ridiculous the idea is, there is always a handful of people who will question this common belief. Yes, negative impact of vaccination sounds ridiculous. But as ridiculous as saying that Earth revolves around the Sun in 1543 or that people are exterminated in gas chambers in Europe in 1940. I’m of course totally pro vaccination but let’s do not laugh at them and be glad that people still maintain power to call everything into question.

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