Story Stream
recent articles

The grim COVID milestone we've been awaiting with trepidation arrived Monday, as predicted: 500,000 American lives lost. President Biden gave an evocative speech about the toll this has taken on our country. The flags are flying at half-staff. Even so, a tepid sense of hope seems to be emerging as this cruel winter wanes: Immunization rates are rising, while the infection rate appears to be in decline. Will we see a fourth surge in infections or have we finally "flattened the curve," as the scientists say?

At some point, the daily heroism of health care professionals all over the world will truly sink in. I include in that group everyone from the nerdy geniuses in their government and private sector labs who produced a vaccine in record time to the brave palliative care nurses who have borne the brunt of seeing half-a-million of our loved ones over to the other side. And every medical industry worker in between.

It was on this date in 1943 that young Jonas Salk began his first field trials against the scourge of polio, a word that frightened parents as much as the war the United States was fighting on two fronts. It was the disease that crippled America's wartime president himself. But a wire story published six years ago today showed how humans beings' fears as well as our physical frailty figure into the dynamics of a pandemic.

On this date in 2015, Congress returned from recess to tackle, among other issues, the worrying rise of "anti-vaxers" -- Americans who had lost faith in the medical establishment and were putting their own children (and the rest of us) in added peril from viruses and bacteria.

A measles outbreak at Disneyland sparked by parents who hadn't immunized their children led to widespread scorn toward the anti-vaccination crowd. So the Associated Press decided to interview some of them.

The ensuing AP story wasn't simpatico with their viewpoint -- anti-vaxers are on the wrong side of science and statistics -- but it was written with empathy. (Journalism like that was still being practiced in this country only six years ago.) The three mothers interviewed came across as reasonable and intellectually curious. One had read a study in The Lancet that furthered her doubts. Another had experienced complications from an anti-malaria medication.

"Contrary to the common sentiment, we are not anti-science," said an Oregon mother of 2½-year-old twin girls. "I'm not opposed to medicine, and I think vaccines have a place. We think it's a medical choice, and it should be researched carefully."

Unfortunately, during a pandemic that's killing millions of people worldwide, we don't have the luxury for such deliberative thinking. Yet something else is at play, too, and that is the default parameters of human thinking.

In 2015, Dartmouth College researchers did a study that produced a sobering result: When presented with scientific evidence that vaccines do not cause autism and that exposure to measles carries great risks, vaccine skeptics didn't change their minds. If anything, they became less trusting of the science. As Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan told the AP, "We tend to be skeptical toward information that contradicts our existing views."

This revelation explains a great deal more than head-scratchers like the nursing home workers who won't take the COVID vaccine, doesn't it? It also helps explain our Manichean and polarized politics, as well. It doesn't provide answers to our screwed-up politics, however. For those, well, it helps to keep sampling RealClear's array of news and opinion, which this daily newsletter attempts to frame and spotlight.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show comments Hide Comments