The resurgence of measles suggests our society is falling apart

Originally published at:


I find it a little weird that the author would put together a well-written think piece about measles, American society, and internet culture, and not once mention either the leading celebrities pushing dangerous anti-vax ideas (Jenny McCarthy, Gwyneth Paltrow) or the massively popular mega-church pastor whose congregations are quite literally ground zero for the measles resurgence.


There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Asimov


To avoid signal boosting the individual spokespeople of conspiracy theories as if they’re as important as general medical consensus?

That’s how this stuff usually gets badly covered, when people give “both-sides-equivalent” mentions to un-equivalent positions.


I don’t really understand how an article in The Atlantic discussing how idiotic anti-vax ideas are would somehow promote anti-vax ideas by critically pointing fingers at the morons who push disinformation and naming names. That’s in no way a “both sides” argument. Do you feel that the names of the people who started, and continue to push, antivax ideas that created the measles resurgence should never be used in the media, in fear of “signal boosting” them?


Absolutely. Explaining this as “the masses” as some clump of matter drifting in a sea of ahistorical currents is missing out on a lot of key drivers. Ironically, that error actually folds back on the conclusions of the article, that not paying attention to the details of how things emerge is dangerous.

I think that the hostility from the hard sciences toward the humanities and social sciences, or at least a perceived competition between them is partly to blame. STEM chauvinism has played a significant role in portraying technology and economics as the solution to all social problems and the more social sciences as emotional, vague and wasteful.

Scientific and economic chauvinism also has to be name-checked here as well. From mothers who raised children in the 50s and 60s and were told their breastmilk was inferior to formula to the fact-devoid war on drugs to the current opioid crisis, there are legitimate reasons for a distrust in a scientific-economic complex that has steamrolled other values.

Not saying this is a reason to disregard science but rather an argument for being better, more conscientious and introspective stewards of scientific knowledge, which I do think we are becoming (partly by breaking up the STEM boy’s club), but right now part of what we are experiencing is the fruit of seeds planted in a less responsible era. The other part, unfortunately, as @nungesser points out, is the fucking greedhead charlatans taking advantage of this backlash and uncertainty for their own twisted ends.


See also that Mother Jones article RE: New Coke.

As a culture we are too enthralled with the loudest stupidest voices in any given room.


While I agree with the spirit of your point, the problem is these people are already signal boosted by their fame and followers. That allows them to influence others with their “beliefs.” Signal boosting them in order to point out the stupidity of their positions may help diminish that influence. Or not. But ignoring them won’t make them go away when they are propped up by their followers/believers.

I loved that. Thank you.


Roger That!

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Not never, but less in a lot of cases. And certainly less discussions that center their views, personalities, and opinions as the central topic of “debate”.

When whole discussions go from “We as a society need vaccines. Let’s talk about why.” to “Isn’t Gwyneth Paltrow a bad person, boy, I’m glad I’m not as bad as her!” then it’s become a distraction.

Signal-boosting is a real thing. It happens when otherwise rational people get caught up in hyper-focussing on super-wrong outlier examples and talking about them so much that anyone over-hearing thinks that the outlier is as important and prevalent as other examples.

Point out when people are wrong, but try not to center them. They’re not the point, and they thrive on negative attention.

The article in The Altantic, specifically arguing the stupidity of being an anti-vaxxer, is not ignoring the central problem posed by anti-vaxxers, even if it doesn’t name-drop every specific anti-vaxxer.

Exposing their views is great, centring them by name in every discussion can make them seem, well, more central to the topic.


It also doesn’t help when services like health care and legal advice are difficult or expensive for the average person to avail themselves of.

Throw in huge, built-in biases within those systems (almost everyone who isn’t a white, cis-male – and some who are – can tell you nightmare stories) and people feel they can’t trust that system. When you can walk into your doctor’s holding your arm that fell off and their first diagnosis is that you need to lose weight, you tend to be leery of just listening to the doctor.

It’s not a surprise that some of the leading anti-vax voices are women. Women are used to having doctors dismiss our problems until it’s too late. That doesn’t mean those women aren’t dangerous as hell, but until we address all the forces involved, we aren’t going to make headway. And that includes the many legitimate reasons people have for not trusting the medical establishment.


“a population that suffers from overconfidence in its own amateur knowledge.”

This is one of the single biggest problems, and it affects all humans to some degree or other. That’s why things like the scientific method and logic are such important tools. The importance of these things, and the innate fallibility of human judgment, should be taught to all younger humans as soon as they are able to understand it. I think that it is a good thing to question what you’ve been told, but if one just give sthese things an ape-brain evaluation based on their “opinion” any sort of correct conclusion would just be wildly lucky. This whole “I think this thing, therefore it is correct” idea is pure folly.

A measure of self-deception does seem to be required to maintain some sort of mental health however, so maybe “you are an ape that will inevitably die with very little understanding of your own existence” is not an idea that would gain a lot of traction.


I think that it’s quite important for articles such as this one to place blame where it’s deserved. Blaming vague, amorphous things like “society” or “the internet” or “social media” is not at all helpful; yes, we’re aware that ideas can spread quickly and virally via the scary internet. In the case of measles and antivax FUD, I think failing to point out the exact and real vectors that have spread the resurgence of measles is poor reporting, poor writing, and a failure on the part of the author.


The opioid crisis and the war on breastmilk were largely the purview of capitalists pursuing profit regardless of the human consequences. To what extent is “science” implicated here?


You must have read another article. The one I read doesn’t blame vague, amorphous things. It starts with specific historical precedents and the earlier significant actors, like Andrew Wakefield. It is directly pointing people to books and articles that chart the spread of misinformation in greater depth than the article.

It doesn’t put the focus on the pop-celebrity adherents like Gwyneth Paltrow, even though it’s fun to dunk on them, because it’s not an issue of a few celebrities being wrong.

As distrust of government has grown, so too has distrust of vaccines. The anti-vaccination movement’s Rosetta stone is a 1998 paper in the British medical journal The Lancet that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. As is well established, the paper was a fraud. Its lead author, the physician Andrew Wakefield, falsified data and received money from lawyers who were suing vaccine makers. The Lancet later retracted the study, and Wakefield lost his medical license. Twenty-one subsequent studies—including a Danish one involving more than 650,000 children—have found no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.


Further reading:

Also, related is this comment I made in the other topic:


Since knowledge that was arrived at scientifically ought to be the highest standard of information we’re capable of, the unscrupulous will cloak their hidden agenda as having been arrived at scientifically in order to add legitimacy to their goal.

I think it’s dangerous to say that STEM fields in and of themselves are the problem. It’s those who sell out their responsibility to the truth for a quick profit who are the real problem because it ruins the reputation of scientific facts and we start to doubt what should be solid evidence.


Yes, I noticed that they speak about the origins of the antivax-autism lie and the original solidly-debunked Lancet article. And then the article utterly fails to follow up on who continues to be the leading voices of spreading that debunked lie and the ways they are using the media to create cells of unvaccinated measles patients in megachurches, for example. I would think that would be kind of important to the topic at hand.


In a way, I have to wonder if the results are intended in terms of the decline of society. I know I’m assuming too much of the rich and powerful here but seeing how many “intellectuals” on the right swoon over the days of feudal lords now really demonstrates intent on their part for the decline of modern society. They basically get to put us non-rich folks in “our place” while they keep all the benefits of a technological society. It’s creepy to consider the implications of that that would mean for future generations.