After I began writing down some of my thinking about the whole anti-vaccine issue contained in some of my earlier posts here, I had a tiny bit of a panic attack. What if everything I wrote wasn’t absolutely, positively up-to-date, or if I had misunderstood something I’d read in a study or if there was a study I didn’t know about or some extra-scientific, political debate circling out there that had some bearing on what I had to say such that it wasn’t all unassailably accurate by anyone’s interpretation?

In the face of these thoughts I did what I do when I am not sure that I’m right (pretty much all the time, actually) which is to do even more reading, and so I skipped around a bit at some of the sites of the more erudite critics of people who are against vaccines.

The reading I did caused me to question things some more – I had to go back and look over a few relevant parts of studies, and I kept stopping to think things through in my mind. Then suddenly I read something that let me completely relax and stop worrying about the comments made by those people at the end of the New York Times article, who were so outspoken about the apparent simplicity of the vaccine controversy.

It was the way in which one critic, after ridiculing anti-vaccine people for thinking that the CDC might be biased or were trying to promote a particular agenda, dismissed a study that could be interpreted as strongly anti-thimerosal for exactly the same sort of reason (being funded by a group with apparent interests). It reminded me that these people will go as far as they need to (arguing with a researcher’s choice of spectrographic tests to determine whether there is mercury contained in a tissue sample, if they don’t like the study’s conclusion, whereas an epidemiological study where the data was lost and so cannot be verified is fine if it shows their desired result). And the anti-vaccine crowd is often the same.

But the most striking moment came for me later, as I considered my personal trail of thoughts about this whole vaccine business. I wondered about my wavering fear concerning the strength of my beliefs and thinking somehow it meant that maybe my position was uncertain. Does it somehow make my stance less tenable if I feel that it can be shaken?

And I’ve thought about this a lot since this first occurred to me, and my answer is an unqualified: no.

I think that being committed to a position for its own sake plays a part in the problems in these sorts of long-enduring debates, where intelligent people disagree. People become extremely personally invested in being correct, especially once their decision has been implemented with regards to the well-being of their children, or when they become publicly committed to it (even if only by authoring a bit of writing on the web). Then nothing you show them can change their mind or shake their commitment to their position. They are forever reading studies and articles, looking for the smallest shred of evidence that supports their position, and happily discarding anything that doesn’t.

So the wavering, for me, was just a sign that maybe I am still the kind of thinker that I hope to be: always open to some new bit of evidence, some new well-constructed study that would cause me to begin to question the beliefs that I currently hold, and someday perhaps, some evidence that completely topples them. I’d like to see this all over the vaccine debate, instead of all the made-up minds, the complicated machinations to defend one’s position, and the double standards for evidence that supports or denies one’s position. I hope I can live up to this myself; I think it’s a worthy aim.

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