The problem with walking off a cliff

The old joke says that falling off of a cliff is not a problem, it is sticking the landing. The day before yesterday I commented that, “I give this silly example because it will help me to make a point about the way all too many people in America are handling the subject of science and scientific conclusions.” However, if you jump off of a cliff, you will fall.

How is it that we are handling scientific conclusions in the USA? Well, most often we have begun to cite all the things for which there are no clear scientific answers yet, and using them to imply that science has no sure scientific answers. Or, worse, we know a little bit about the subject and we misapply that little bit resulting in very mistaken conclusions. If you jump off of a cliff, you will fall.

For instance, in the area of particle physics, we still have no Theory of Everything that unites the interactions of gravity, electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces. We do not even have its predecessor, a Grand Unified Theory yet. Closer to home, every year some previously held theory is shown to be not as accurate or have as much explanatory value as we previously thought it did. However, if you jump off of a cliff, you will fall.

[Note: I do not include in the paragraph above some of the ever-changing “medical” conclusions that make the rounds in the USA. Many of them were never fully-verified peer-reviewed medical conclusions, but were initial reports that the news media picked up and broadcast as though they were final and unchangeable conclusions. The most infamous of them was the link between vaccines and autism, a conclusion based on one study that was almost immediately disproven. Yet, that myth continues to make the rounds and has now even become its own conspiracy theory, in which the pharmaceutical establishment refuses to acknowledge the link for financial reasons.]

The problem is that the areas for which science has no certain answer are misused. All too many are citing those areas as somehow proving that there are no certain answers in science. Throw in a dash of post-modernism and a heavy peppering of every American’s right to come to their own conclusions, and you have a recipe for budding disaster. However, if you jump off of a cliff, you will fall.

In the area of vaccinations, we see this tendency to consider even the certain areas of science as uncertain, as leading to an increasing willingness by parents (and certain actors and actresses) to ignore and/or modify vaccinations regimes that have been worked out by well over a century of trial and error, well over a century of experiments and epidemiological studies. However, if you jump off of a cliff, you will fall.

Sadly, the increasing USA rate of preventable childhood infections is the evidence that the recommended vaccination regimes were actually the best ones. Let me give you a quote from 2012:

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. But a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says infections have risen: last year the U.S. reported the highest number of measles cases in 15 years. … said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, in a teleconference. “It’s serious — 1 out of 3 people who got it last year had to be hospitalized.”

If you jump off of a cliff, you will fall. The CDC said that the falling rates of measles vaccination were the cause. You see, all those good “educated” parents who did not wish to “endanger” their children by giving them an “unnecessary” vaccine are responsible for the return of measles. They had just enough knowledge to come to horribly wrong conclusions.

Measles is a disease that is still quite alive and well in the world. Measles was declared eliminated based on the premise that parents would continue to vaccinate their children in the USA. But, parents did not continue to do so. As a result, measles is beginning to return. You see, national immunity is based on the continued adherence of the population to the vaccination regime. Measles is a sadly perfect proof of what happens when parents refuse to think of the good of the community, and when they decide that because science is uncertain about various subjects, it is uncertain about all subjects, and that each and every parent is capable of correctly evaluating all scientific claims and protocols all on their own. If you step off of a cliff, you will fall.

The rising rate of measles infections is clear negative evidence that the CDC’s vaccination protocol is correct and necessary. But, worse could come. Recently a parent commented to me about delaying the polio vaccine because of the minimal risk to their child. Consider what would happen in this country if enough parents decided to do that. Yep, just like what has happened with the MMR vaccine. We would begin to see polio return to the USA. For all intent and purposes, polio was eradicated in the USA by 1999, but as recently as 1995, we had 10 cases of polio in the USA, and as recently as 1952, we had over 20,000 cases in the USA. If you step off of a cliff, you will fall.

I think what troubles me most is the clear and present danger that the misunderstanding of national immunity presents. All too many parents are basing their decision on statistics. That is, the chances of their child getting a particular childhood disease is negligible, therefore they are safe in waiting to vaccinate their child, or in not vaccinating their child. But, that is a terrible misunderstanding of epidemiology. In epidemiology, that negligible chance of contracting a particular disease is based on the assumption that children will continue to be vaccinated at highly compliant rates. If children are not vaccinated at that highly compliant rate, then the statistics are not applicable. The rising rate of measles infections is clear evidence of this tenet of epidemiology. If you step off of a cliff, you will fall.

Parents, each and every one of you is simply not knowledgeable about each and every subject. Even science does not rely on the conclusions of one person, but on the conclusions of many people through peer-reviews, etc. Frankly, it is not necessary for you to research each and every subject personally and to draw personal conclusions on each and every subject. Nor is it necessary to quiz physicians, teachers, etc., as though you were a prosecuting attorney and they were a guilty defendant. Nor is it necessary to insist that all professionals must alter their protocol to fit your highly personalized worldview. It is actually OK to accept various community conclusions with only a minimal review to make sure that nothing stands out as a warning flag. It is OK to accept various community standards without—literally—making a federal case out of it. If you step off of a cliff, you will fall.

There are places to make a stand. Various Scriptures and writings of the Church Father point these places out to us. However, we must be careful. We cannot leverage our responsibilities as parents to the point that we endanger the community and the children of others. You see, when your child catches a preventable childhood disease, it is to that physician—whose recommendation you rejected—that you go. When your child goes to the hospital, it is the community, through its physicians, nurses, medical laboratory scientists, EMT’s, etc., that is forced to try to save the child from your misdeeds. And, should your child suffer severe sequelae, it will be various community members—physical therapists, speech therapists, etc.—who will have to work to help your child recover from your faulty conclusions. If you step off of a cliff, you will fall.


  1. says

    As a child I was one of the first generation to get the polio vaccine–I had a same age co-worker whose parents did not vaccinate him because…”IT was too new”. He is permanently disabled because of this decision. Now this is not the same as Father’s point here–but does illustrate the point that your decisions DO affect your children for the rest of their lives.

  2. Nelson Chen says

    I agree that all too often the anti-vaccine people are conspiracy theorists and harbor irrational fears. With that fact noted though, what about the very real although small risk (say 1/1,000,000) or so of someone contracting polio from the live attenuated virus vaccine? In an environment where the virus is very rare, how should the risks of the vaccine be balanced against the (also tiny) risk of virus infection?

    I understand the odds are very different with each disease, and that in general it’s a good idea to get the recommended vaccinations. Herd immunity is very real, and it’s irresponsible to selfishly refuse to be immunized, especially when the vaccine is orders of magnitude safer than “taking one’s chances.” Speaking of which, what are the theological and ethical issues involved in the assessment and acceptance of risk?

    • says

      Since the year 2000, the USA has gone to an all inactivated vaccine schedule. The live attenuated virus vaccine for polio is no longer used. See which has an extremely good discussion of the Salk and Sabin vaccines, their differences, their advantages and disadvantages and the various immunization schedules that have been used in the USA. Once the risk of “wild” type polio became essentially non-existent in the USA, the live vaccine stopped being used. Notice that there was an outbreak of polio in 1995 in the Netherlands among those who refused to be vaccinated by any vaccine.

      I suspect that I will soon do a post on the ethical issues of vaccinations.

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