What creationists and anti-vaxxers have in common

A patient in Jackson, Miss., gets a flu shot. When it comes to childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and whooping cough, some parents are refusing to have their children vaccinated, and those diseases are making something of a comeback.
(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

The two stories don’t seem to have much to do with each other at first look: a rise in diseases such as measles and whooping cough in places with cheap, available vaccines, and charter schools using public money to teach creationism.

They are, though, different manifestations of the same thing: people’s misplaced and misinformed insistence that their personal beliefs exempt them from the scientific evidence to the contrary, even if that means consequences for people who don’t share their beliefs.

Across Texas, Arkansas and Indiana, Slate reports, about 17,000 students in publicly funded Responsive Education Solutions charter schools are given textbooks that put creationism in the classroom on the sly.


The Supreme Court ruled creationism unconstitutional, and a federal court judge equated so-called intelligent design with creationism and declared it unconstitutional. (Responsive Education Solutions gets about $82 million a year in government money to run its schools, so it’s also curious to read that its history textbook accuses feminism of forcing women to turn to the government as a “surrogate husband.”)

And the Council on Foreign Relations adds its data to frightening findings that in parts of North America and Europe where parents are refusing to immunize their children, childhood diseases that vaccinations all but wiped out two generations ago are sickening and killing children again, in no small part because so many parents are rejecting more than 150 years of scientific proof that vaccines work.

Neither of these cases is about faith in science, because science doesn’t trade in faith. They are about refusing to acknowledge the facts in evidence, to the detriment not only of themselves but of others.

There are undoubtedly creationist parents who vaccinate their children, and anti-vaccinator parents who wouldn’t question the truth of evolution. But they have this in common:

The consequences of their beliefs reach beyond their own sphere of believers. These are public schools, and this is public health. A creationism-tilting textbook gets handed out to all the students, not just the ones whose parents don’t want their kids reading about evolution. Unvaccinated kids put the entire population at risk, and in fact the anti-vaccinators are counting on the rest of us vaccinating our kids to create an immunized shield, a pool that will keep their own unvaccinated kids safe.

The charter school textbooks breezily dismiss evolution as “an unproved theory.” Here’s where inadequate science education and fundamental science ignorance show themselves. Science uses the word “theory” the way the rest of us might use “conclusion.” A scientific theory sums up hypotheses that are themselves backed up by testing and observation.


In the non-science world, the word “theory” can mean any breezy, half-baked notion that pops into someone’s head, like, “My mom has this theory that space aliens invented the flush toilet.” Forty years ago, this kind of silliness would have been “crowd-source” mocked on front porches and barber shops into the fringes, into oblivion. Now, the Internet can dredge up a credulous audience for just about any folly.

Creationists have learned from the courts not to fight this battle as a religious one, and so they have tried to join the battle on science’s own turf, as intelligent design, where they find themselves outfought there too. The cry is, “teach the controversy,” when in fact there is no controversy except the one they created. Scientists find new data all the time — and evaluate it and assess it, and find that the data add detail and substance to the edifice of evolution; they don’t shake its foundation, let alone knock it down.

Anti-vaccinators arose in England along with vaccine laws of about 150 years ago. One of them brought his anti-smallpox vaccine campaign to the U.S., and generated more than a century of court rulings upholding government’s authority to require vaccinations, one which has been challenged with “opt out” for children, with the results that the Council on Foreign Relations’ chart reinforces.

Ignorance is curable by education, but willfully ignoring the facts can be contagious — and even fatal.

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