Being Wrong: The Last Remaining Common Ground

Rand Paul on CNBC: “I have heard of many tragic cases of…normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”

— Rebecca Berg (@rebeccagberg) February 2, 2015

Hospitals are terrifying in a way that I’ve only just been able to put my finger on: They are temples to science and rationality that operate according to no known logic. The institutional and individual incentives that keep things from swirling into total disarray — that keep things moving forward as people fall into and recover from their various crises — are either inscrutable or arbitrary. Hospitals are a little like the human body: they are places where the schedule rules everything until it’s an emergency and the schedule is irrelevant. Receiving care means being constantly vigilant against error, and making sure that the nurses or doctors know who you are, what has already been done to you, which leg’s getting the operation, what actually hurts and what doesn’t. But it also means having some degree of faith in the staff’s expertise and the validity of the materials from which they have trained, which are ultimately what stand between you and death.

All of this is to say that the medical establishment is attractive, as a prop or a villain, to people of a certain disposition: those who are skeptical of everything in the world but their own intuitions; people who take complexity and uncertainty to mean that surely, I know better. Honest doubt doesn’t drive anti-vaccination activists, nor does a resentment of “privileged elites.” Absolute, wide-eyed self-confidence does. This helps explain the odd bedfellows problem: the Rand Paul home-schoolers and Jenny McCarthy green-juicers of the world can cast the medical establishment, which is actually visibly sort of broken, as either a bureaucratic or corporate evil, and vaccines as a plot to either poison or exert power over the nation’s children.

“You’re not crazy” is something political candidates telegraph to people they think are crazy in order to win primaries. But vaccines are special in that they inspire a bipartisan disingenuousness, which means that they won’t necessarily disappear as an issue in the general election. Your opponent’s crazy people, the ones you considered unreachable lost causes from the start, and which your opponent would normally take for granted as supporters, will have a way to make their pet issue come back.

Vaccines will be a factor in both party’s primaries. Vaccines will be a subject in the 2016 presidential debates! This year, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton will sit in rooms and listen to advisors carefully consider the optics of inoculation, and we will later score their success.