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Sunday, March 3, 2019

Extremism, Populism, and the Antivax Movement

In The Politics of Autism, I look at the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism.  TwitterFacebook, and other social media platforms have helped spread this dangerous myth.

Kelly Weill at The Daily Beast:
Most anti-vaxxers are not white supremacists, far from it. But the overlap can send some well-meaning parents down the rabbit hole. Far-right groups frequently engage in “entryism, a tactic that involves seeding a sympathetic mainstream group with extremist ideology, then slowly radicalizing its members. The tactic works well in groups like the anti-vax community.
[P]opulist movements, including Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, borrow some of the left’s anti-authority language, casting themselves as anti-elite. On Facebook, anti-vaxxers might rage against the authority of pharmaceutical companies or school vaccination policies, but Trump is a less common target. (Trump has promoted anti-vax conspiracies, too, falsely claiming in 2014 that vaccines cause autism.)
Other conservatives have painted their anti-vax stances as anti-authoritarian by claiming vaccinations are communist. “The idea that we force someone to give up their liberty for the sake of the collective is not based on American values but rather, Communist,” Kelly Townsend, a Republican anti-vaxxer in Arizona’s state House, wrote in a Thursday Facebook post.
In The European Journal of Public Health, Jonathan Kennedy has an article titled "Populist Politics and Vaccine Hesitancy in Western Europe: an Analysis of National-level Data.  The abstract:
Parents’ reluctance to vaccinate their children undermines the effectiveness of vaccination programmes in Western Europe. There is anecdotal evidence suggesting a connection between the rise of political populism and vaccine hesitancy.
This paper analyses national-level data to examine the link between political populism and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe. Political populism is operationalised as the percentage of people in a country who voted for populist parties in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Vaccine hesitancy is operationalised as the percentage of people in a country who believe that vaccines are not important, safe and effective according to data from the Vaccine Confidence Project (2015).
There is a highly significant positive association between the percentage of people in a country who voted for populist parties and who believe that vaccines are not important (R = 0.7923, P = 0.007) and effective (R = 0.7222, P = 0.0035). The percentage of people who think vaccines are unsafe just misses being significant at the 5% level (R = 0.5027, P = 0.0669).
Vaccine hesitancy and political populism are driven by similar dynamics: a profound distrust in elites and experts. It is necessary for public health scholars and actors to work to build trust with parents that are reluctant to vaccinate their children, but there are limits to this strategy. The more general popular distrust of elites and experts which informs vaccine hesitancy will be difficult to resolve unless its underlying causes—the political disenfranchisement and economic marginalisation of large parts of the Western European population—are also addressed.
From the article:
Until the mid-20th century, science was seen as the ultimate form of knowledge, but in recent decades social scientists have challenged natural scientists’ claims to epistemological supremacy. This is based on a valid critique of the scientific method and its inability to uncover objective truth. Nevertheless, it helped to create a situation in which many laypeople distrust scientific expertise. Harry Collins refers to this phenomenon as technological or scientific populism. Climate change denial is on manifestation, vaccine hesitancy is another
[It] seems likely that scientific populism is driven by similar feelings to political populism—i.e. profound distrust of elites and experts by disenfranchised and marginalised parts of the population.