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Anti-vaxxers are not the enemy: Science, politics and the crisis of authority

An authority crisis disintegrates common ground and makes us all inept in the face of an ecological disaster. Here’s a concise overview reprinted from Salon.


Anti-vaxxers are not the enemy: Science, politics and the crisis of authority
My kids got their shots! But climate denial is far more dangerous, and a larger cultural crisis looms behind both
By ANDREW O’HEHIR, blogging for Salon

SATURDAY, FEB 7, 2015 10:30 AM MST

Salon montage
One of the central characteristics of our age – which those of us with fancy educations often call the postmodern era, although even that term is starting to feel old – is a widespread crisis of authority. It isn’t quite true that nobody believes in anything and nobody trusts the experts, as in the rootless world of moral relativism feared by conservatives. It’s more that everybody gets to pick their own beliefs, their own experts and their own evidence. This is something like the crisis of meaning that Nietzsche foresaw when he pronounced that God was dead, but he was only half right. The old God whose judgment everyone in the Western world feared is gone, all right – but he has divided and multiplied, like cancer cells, into an endless pantheon of new gods.

It’s entirely expected for somebody with my media platform to rage against right-wing kooks on television — or right-wing kooks in elected office, for that matter — who claim that climate change is a hoax or that vaccinating children against preventable diseases is dangerous and unnecessary. I agree that those people are deluded or misinformed, and in the case of climate denial they are serving as the agents of larger and darker powers. But those issues are not the same, no matter how closely they have become linked in the liberal and conservative hive-minds. For one thing, anti-vaccine sentiment is found across the political spectrum, although it’s most common among the libertarian-minded right and the anarchist-minded or New Agey quadrants of the left. Attempts to cram the vaccine issue into the binary discourse of partisan politics or the “culture war” are intellectually lazy, and misrepresent its true significance. Furthermore, the dangers of climate denialism are many orders of magnitude worse than the dangers of anti-vaxxer hysteria, which feels like one of those sideshow issues in American politics that’s really about something else.

What links the anti-vaccine movement to climate denialism — and to many other things that may appear unrelated — is that both are manifestations of the crisis of authority. As represented by people like Glenn Beck and Rand Paul, they also display that crisis in its relatively new and intriguingly crazy right-wing costume. Know-nothing congressmen and vapid TV hosts stand courageously against the pointy-headed Ph.D. elite: They are not scientists, they assure us (scoring points with their core audience), but they know what they believe! Meanwhile, bicoastal liberals are granted an irresistible opportunity to proclaim their own enlightenment and decry the stupidity of others. As gratifying as it may be to congratulate ourselves for composting our coffee grounds and watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s show and believing in Science, it’s missing the point.

Indeed, it’s not entirely clear that we “believe in science,” or that we should. Many of us who vaccinate our kids and understand that climate change is an urgent global problem feel less convinced by scientific assurances that genetically modified organisms and pesticide-laced produce are harmless. Hey, thalidomide and DDT were safe too! You don’t have to dispute the scientific principles behind vaccination to feel uneasy about the giant pharmaceutical corporations, with their long and ugly histories of avarice and falsehood, who actually manufacture and sell vaccines. Those who seek to undermine mainstream science on climate change or vaccination or evolution or whatever else may be wrong on the merits (according to you and me and almost every actual scientist), but when it comes to the validity of science as a social institution, they have a point and we all know it.

Science, properly speaking, does not “believe” in itself. Any ethical scientist will tell you that the history of science is a history of doubt and mistakes and accidental discoveries. What is demanded here is not faith in people with white coats and prestigious degrees, who are just as likely to be evil and corrupt as anyone else, but critical thinking (which, by the way, is at the core of the scientific method). I specifically mean the ability to follow the threads of ideas back to their sources, and the ability to ask who benefits and who loses when a certain idea wins out. That’s a skill that can be learned by anyone, and one that is effectively suppressed in our current educational economy. It’s also the only possible way out of the American impasse around science, and the feedback loop created by the crisis of authority.

Let me try to forestall a few of the angry comments: I am not covertly agreeing with anti-vaxxers, I don’t want to give up my smartphone or undo the elimination of smallpox, and I don’t assert, after the style of 1970s French philosophy, that there is no such thing as objective reality and that it’s all a game of language and ideology. Still, the crisis of authority is a cultural phenomenon, meaning that it really is about language and ideology more than verifiable facts. To insist that “our side” has access to true facts and legitimate authority, while the other side relies on quacks and charlatans, is not much different from saying that our God is great and yours is a filthy donkey. We may be correct (in either instance), but the case is inherently unprovable in any terms the other side is ever likely to accept.

The crisis of authority is by no means limited to anti-vaccination loons and climate deniers, and is not exclusively found on the right. For the past half-century and more it has largely been the left that has challenged social, cultural and political orthodoxy on white supremacy, the Vietnam War, nuclear power, the oppression of women and LGBT people and the destruction of the environment for profit, among many other things. Until recently, American conservatives saw themselves first and foremost as defenders of authority and moral order, buttresses around a fortress of shared values that was buffeted by a corrosive tide. That impulse still exists, as with the recent rush to embrace “American Sniper” and the petulant NYPD protest, but at this point it’s mostly nostalgia. The fortress has been swamped, the moral order is in ruins and the shared values have been scattered like driftwood. All that is solid melts into air, and even the right has become relativistic: the anti-establishment strain of radical and conspiratorial thought that was once found only on the discredited John Birch fringe has become the conservative mainstream.

No doubt the crisis of authority is a double-edged sword, which leads to unpredictable and sometimes dangerous consequences. It fuels widespread distrust of government and political apathy on one hand, and vibrant feminist debate and youth activism on the other. Since we all believe in something, it is likely to make us all uncomfortable at some point.) But it isn’t inherently unhealthy, and to some degree we have to take the good with the bad and do our best to sort through the chaos. Making fun of anti-vaxxers, and conflating their anxiety and bewilderment with the mendacious corporate trolls of climate denial, feels like an attempt to erect a temporary bulwark of centrist-liberal meaning that the crisis of authority cannot undermine. It won’t work.

As I’ve said, this crisis is nothing new. It’s the natural and inevitable consequence of an era of deepening disillusionment in which every important social institution — government, military and police; religion, sports and higher education; big business and the financial sector – has had its turn in the spotlight and been deemed corrupt or compromised. The collective loss of faith in those institutions – the metaphorical death of Nietzsche’s God – made it possible for Edward Snowden to break his vow of silence and flee to Hong Kong with a trove of classified documents, for adults who suffered abuse decades earlier to speak out against revered priests and beloved athletic coaches, and for young people to take to the streets by the thousands to proclaim that black lives matter.

Many people feel deeply uncomfortable with some or all of those things, just as you and I, very likely, are made queasy by Jenny McCarthy’s claims about the dangers of vaccination, or by the spectacle of every single Republican in the United States Senate striking the manly position that climate change is not real or at least not caused by humans. As I said earlier, I don’t think those issues are remotely comparable in terms of severity, and I think the classic question of Cui bono?, or who benefits, yields very different results. McCarthy and her ilk may be hawking advice books or valueless supplements or whatever, but they are not intentionally spreading lies on behalf of oil companies and big polluters, or trading short-term profits for the survival of the planet. Most people making the decision not to vaccinate are mothers who are being demonized for a confusion and mistrust that is in fact widely shared, if in less dramatic form.

For better or worse, at least climate denial and the vaccine debate are in the forefront of public discourse. Numerous forms of authority still lie concealed, or are carefully protected. I don’t know how to evaluate a former German newspaper editor’s recent claim that for years he published stories supplied to him by the CIA, because the story has been entirely ignored by the American media. Then there’s the new government in Greece, the first one in Europe to directly challenge the fiscal austerity regime imposed by global financial institutions. That’s a story of political and economic confrontation that could reshape the history of our century. It has been covered, all right — in a defensive and patronizing tone transparently designed to reassure readers that the neoliberal order often called the “Washington consensus” is not in danger, and that the silly radicals in Athens will have to grow up and take their medicine like everybody else.

Critical thinking about the nature of authority might induce us to wonder why those stories are invisible, or spun as dry policy questions for readers of the business pages, while so much bandwidth is occupied with making fun of a few vaccine loons. It might cause us to notice that treating people who feel genuine uncertainty about mainstream medicine as if they were low-achieving children only makes the problem worse, and that it’s absurd to assert that questioning the Catholic Church or the National Football League is good, but questioning the name-brand institutions of the scientific world is bad.

Science considered as a method and a process is likely, over the long haul and after a lot of trial and error, to provide us with good answers. Science expressed as a social and historical institution – as a source of authority, in other words — is another matter entirely, and a far more complicated story than we can tell here. It has extended life and cured disease and improved agriculture, and it has brought us eugenics and the Tuskegee experiments and Hiroshima and Zyklon-B and a whole host of amazing pesticides and herbicides and preservatives and plastics that have permeated every square millimeter of the planet’s surface and the bodies of all its creatures, and whose long-term effects are not known but don’t look that great.

Trust in science, my ass. Questioning science is an urgent and necessary aspect of contemporary critical thinking, and the questions that anti-vaxxers start with are entirely legitimate: What are you putting in my kid’s body? Is it safe, and is it necessary? Who’s making money off this, and what do we know about them? And even beyond that: Can I trust that you are telling me the truth? My kids have had all their shots, and I believe that people who refuse vaccination are putting together shreds of old anecdote and flawed evidence and conspiratorial ideology to reach a faulty conclusion. As we have recently discovered, this can have unfortunate public health consequences. But I speak for many parents when I say that I don’t begrudge those people their doubts, because I have shared them. That last question, which lies at the heart of both the vaccine issue and the entire crisis of authority — “Why should I trust you, after all the lies I’ve been told?” — still gives me a twinge sometimes.

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change — But Congress Forbids It

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change — But Congress Forbids It.


The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change — But Congress Forbids It

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids It

As rising sea levels begin to engulf naval bases and extreme weather exacerbates conflicts worldwide, the military has sounded the alarm that climate change poses a long-term threat to U.S. security. The GOP response? It passed legislation that blocks funding for any Pentagon program that tackles climate change.

Just prior to Memorial Day weekend, the House of Representatives stuck an amendment onto the National Defense Authorization Act, which stipulates that:

None of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to implement the U.S. Global Change Research Program National Climate Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, the United Nation’s Agenda 21 sustainable development plan, or the May 2013 Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order.

In other words, don’t even THINK about initiating programs to prepare for the potential impacts of climate change, either in the United States or abroad.

The amendment, which was approved by the Republican-controlled House in a 231-192 vote, was introduced by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), who said:

Our climate is obviously changing; it has always been changing. With all the unrest around the global [sic], why should Congress divert funds from the mission of our military and national security to support a political ideology. This amendment will ensure we maximize our military might without diverting funds for a politically motivated agenda.

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) wrote a letter in strong opposition to the amendment, saying:

The flat earth society is at it again….The McKinley amendment would require the Defense Department to assume that the cost of carbon pollution is zero. That’s science denial at its worst and it fails our moral obligation to our children and grandchildren.

The Pentagon’s Case for Dealing with Climate Change

The legislation comes at a time when military officials have been cranking up the volume on this issue—notably, through the recent publication of two reports, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (a Congressionally mandated assessment of Department of Defense strategy and priorities) and a study written by an advisory group of retired, high-ranking military officers, titled “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change.”

The 2014 QDR, which is the second consecutive review that has addressed the implications of climate change for Pentagon planning, observed that:

As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics….are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.

This is more than simply a rhetorical nod to an issue that is a high priority for the White House. Comments by military officials over the past few years have made it clear that it’s a problem they take very seriously. Last March, the Boston Globe reported, Admiral Samuel Locklear—America’s top military officer in charge of monitoring hostile actions by North Korea and escalating tensions between China and Japan—identified climate change as the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific region. “You have the real potential here in the not-too-distant future of nations displaced by rising sea level,” he said. “Certainly weather patterns are more severe than they have been in the past. We are on super typhoon 27 or 28 this year in the Western Pacific. The average is about 17.”

The U.S. military, Locklear added, has taken the initiative to reach out to other armed forces in the region. “We have interjected into our multilateral dialogue—even with China and India—the imperative to kind of get military capabilities aligned [for] when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations,” he told the Boston Globe. “If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.”

“I’m not seeing intransigence [on the issue] in the Pentagon,” retired Army Brig. Gen. John Adams told the online publication Defense One. Adams, who is an advisor to the Center for Climate Security, spoke specifically about how climate change is already having an influence on military decision-making near Pensacola, Florida, where he lives. “We have major installations in this area. We predict the sea level will rise here. That means that Navy ship berths will have to change, because they’re not floating docks, they’re built into the land. And when the sea level rises above the point where it’s safe to berth a Navy ship, then you have to change the berthing structure … so climate change will have an effect on our basing structures.”

The impact on military facilities is the subject of considerable discussion in the aforementioned report, “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change.” The study was written by 11 retired U.S. generals and admirals who are members of the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board (MAB), a respected government-funded military research organization.

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids ItExpand

One case study that MAB addressed is the Hampton Roads metropolitan area (see map above), located near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in the southeastern part of Virginia:

All military branches and the Coast Guard have facilities in the region. In all, there are 29 military sites in Hampton Roads, including Naval Station Norfolk (the largest naval complex in the world), Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek–Fort Story, and Naval Air Station Oceana, including critical defense industry partners such as Huntington Ingalls Shipyard, which builds half our submarines and all of our aircraft carriers. Many of the facilities are at or only a few meters above sea level.

The area has hundreds of miles of waterfront from three major rivers that all flow into the Chesapeake Bay. It is an extremely low-lying area, which makes it particularly susceptible to flooding from relative sea level rise—a combination of global sea level rise, land subsidence, and ocean circulation.

Estimates of relative sea level rise in the Hampton Roads area range from 1.5 feet over the next 20–50 years to as high as a 7.5-foot rise by 2100 (above the 1992 mean sea level baseline).

“Political posturing and budgetary woes cannot be allowed to inhibit discussion and debate over what so many believe to be a salient national security concern for our nation,” MAB added. “Time and tide wait for no one.”

Conservatives Respond to the Military

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids ItExpand

This kind of talk makes conservatives grouchy. They’ve spent years making the case that climate change is the latest fad in environmental hysteria, a liberal plot to “create global government” and a scheme for scientists and universities to keep their pockets lined with grant money. And now conservatives find themselves at odds with the guardians of our national security? (Awkward!)

But never underestimate the power of political spin. Over the last few years, conservative commentators have developed a series of talking points to distance themselves from climate change without attacking our active-duty military officers:

Talking point #1: Our military is a victim of political peer pressure

The Weekly Standard:

According to a draft copy of the Quadrennial Defense Review, DoD wonks are planning to mold an already over-tasked military to meet rising challenges associated with global warming climate change.

Consider how drastically the Pentagon has been forced to adapt since the end of the Cold War….Now we are proposing a massive shakeup to Pentagon policy by adding yet another core mission— climate change, which has nothing to do with winning battles— to an already crowded task list….is it wise to continue to violently disrupt a culture which is fueled by tradition and a fierce warrior ethos by forcing them to constantly adjust to the popular political trends of the day?

The National Review:

QDRs are now squarely aimed at defending present budgets and ongoing activities. Worse, they often cannot resist throwing support behind the political hot item of the day.

Talking point #2: Fight wars, not climate change


Let’s free up the Navy from responsibility for protecting our planet from natural climate change so that they can concentrate on addressing real man-made threats to our national independence…a mission they can actually do something about!

The National Review:

The QDR sees the potential consequences of global warming—retreating glaciers, extreme weather, rising sea levels and temperatures, food security and water scarcity, disease—as potential contributors to instability and conflict.

This approach leads to recommendations that limit the flexibility of the military by, for example, limiting its options regarding the use of energy. While the QDR asserts that such steps will not undermine the military’s ability to perform its missions, it is likely they will. This is like telling the fire department to cut down on hydrant use in order to conserve water.

Talking point #3: The Democrats made them do it!


In 2007, Senate Armed Services Committee members Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and John Warner (R-VA) snuck some language into the National Defense Authorization Act which got our military into the climate protection business whether they wanted to or not. The amendment required DoD to consider the effects of climate change upon their facilities, capabilities and missions. Now, through the QDR, the DoD is incorporating and considering the “threat” of climate change into its long-range strategic plans. This despite the fact that no evidence of a climate crisis, much less any human-caused one, actually exists.

Talking point #4: Military strategists are making decisions based on bad data

National Review:

The link between extreme weather and global warming is debatable….All of this seems to be a very shaky foundation upon which to reshape America’s defense strategy. In its oversight role, Congress should challenge the administration’s inclusion of climate change as a defense priority.

Talking point #5: Retired military officers yearn for more glory

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, described the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board’s report as nothing more than ex-military men seeking attention.

“There is no one in more pursuit of publicity than a retired military officer,” Inhofe said of the report’s authors. “I look back wistfully at the days of the Cold War. Now you have people who are mentally imbalanced, with the ability to deploy a nuclear weapon. For anyone to say that any type of global warming is anywhere close to the threat that we have with crazy people running around with nuclear weapons, it shows how desperate they are to get the public to buy this.”

General Consensus

Climate change deniers in Congress should be worried. The problem for them is not just that the military is a respected voice of authority. Their real problem is that the military is quite adept at communicating the urgency to address climate change. While conservative pundits prattle on about how military culture is defined by “tradition and a fierce warrior ethos,” the men and women who serve this country discuss climate change in terms that reflect how the military actually operates—by emphasizing the importance of risk management, logistics and scenario planning.

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids ItExpand

Consider some of these excerpts from the MAB report—

The risk of inaction:

Some in the political realm continue to debate the cause of a warming planet and demand more data. Yet MAB member General Gordon Sullivan, United States Army, Retired, has noted: “Speaking as a soldier, we never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”

We recognize that skepticism is important in the scientific process, especially in the continual refinement of theories, and that healthy debate in the area of climate change can serve to advance science, but falling short of 100 percent agreement is not a justifiable reason for inaction. As noted by MAB member Admiral Frank “Skip” Bowman, United States Navy, Retired: “Managing risk is seldom about dealing with absolute certainties but, rather, involves careful analysis of the probability of an event and the resultant consequences of that event occurring. Even very low probability events with devastating consequences must be considered and mitigation/adaptation schemes developed and employed.”

We operate our nuclear submarine fleet in this manner. Some may argue that this continuing process results in overdesign and over cautiousness. Maybe so, but our U.S. submarine safety record testifies to the wisdom of this approach. That’s where we should be with climate change knowns and unknowns.

Climate vs. weather:

Contributing to the ongoing climate change debate are natural variations in weather patterns. Although pundits may try, no individual weather event or weather season can be attributed decisively to climate change. Weather is what occurs day-to-day; climate describes weather patterns over decades. However, rather than wondering if any specific events are “caused” by climate change, MAB member Rear Admiral David Titley, United States Navy, Retired, suggests an alternative way of thinking about recent weather phenomena: “It is more useful to think of climate as the deck of cards from which our daily weather events are dealt. As the climate changes, so does our deck of cards. For every degree of warming, we add an extra ace into the deck. Over time, unusual hands such as a full house with aces high become more plausible and more common.”


The need to build alliances:

Addressing climate change is expensive, so those costs should be shared as much as possible, General Wald agreed. “It’s also massive and unpredictable as to where it’s going to be,” he said. “You’d like to interface with other governments to arrive at an understanding of interoperability issues. When people train together, they become more accepting of what the perceived threat is.”

General Stalder said he’d like to see a new multilateral arrangement emerge to address climate change. “From my perspective,” he said, “the opportunity that it creates is an operating construct among the coalition of the willing to respond to things in a more cohesive way than is done right now, including a sort of standing command arrangement or coordination arrangement where countries could contribute to that and offer relief more quickly.

The risks of ceding American leadership:

When Admiral Gunn thinks about climate change, he remembers a plaque on the desk of the late Vice Admiral Paul Butcher, a gruff, cigar-chomping figure with whom he served in the 1970s: “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.”

“That’s the kind of the way I feel about this—we need to be leaders,” said Admiral Gunn, a 35-year Navy veteran who is president of CNA’s Institute for Public Research….”During the last seven years, it appears that America has begun to surrender world leadership in this collection of issues dealing with climate change and national security,” he said. “Ceding this has serious economic and national security implications, and as the U.S. desires to provide security and stability in various parts of the world, the fact that we are ceding our leadership will make it more and more difficult.”

It remains to be seen whether the McKinley amendment will make it past the Senate and onto the president’s desk. But, no matter what the outcome, it’s further proof that Congressional Republicans have abrogated any effort to lead responsibly on this issue. It’s time for them to follow—or get out of the way.

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