OPINION | The villainisation of vaccinations and the rehabilitation of authority

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The author writes that social media and the information age has resulted in a demise in peoples’ trust in experts, authorities, specialists and researchers leading to a rise in an anti-vaxxer movement.
The author writes that social media and the information age has resulted in a demise in peoples’ trust in experts, authorities, specialists and researchers leading to a rise in an anti-vaxxer movement.
Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

In light of the rise of anti-vaxxer movements, it is time to rehabilitate authority and understand that scientists are trying to save lives, writes Yolandi M Coetser.

While social media and the information age has had the wonderful effect of making information freely available, it has, seemingly, also caused a demise in peoples’ trust in experts, authorities, specialists and researchers.

This worrying trend is evidenced by a variety of developments – most notably the rise of anti-vaxxer movements. Reading the comments on any social media post about the Covid-19 vaccine sadly demonstrates that South Africans are not immune to the villainisation of vaccinations, once confined to America.

It has made me think about the work of German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002). Gadamer argued that we all have vorurteil – these are prejudices or pre-judgements.

Unlike contemporary understandings of prejudice, Gadamer thought that prejudices are neutral. The point of philosophical enquiry is, consequently, to establish which of these prejudices are legitimate.

Legimate and illegitimate prejudices

To illustrate, we have a prejudice that an apple is an edible fruit, or that we should stop at a stop street. These seem to be legitimate prejudices. There are other prejudices that are illegitimate, such as that women should earn less than men for the same work, or racial supremacy.

Now, it would take an awful long time to consider every single prejudice we have – so, Gadamer proposes that we rehabilitate authority. This means that we should acquire "the knowledge, namely, that the other is superior to oneself in judgment and insight and that for this reason his judgment take precedence – i.e., it takes priority over one’s own" (Truth and Method, 280-281).

This brings me back to the anti-vaxxer – those who say "you don’t know what is in the vaccine", while scoffing down their third McDonalds burger of the week. Those who say that "it’s big pharma trying to make money" while themselves expecting a financial remuneration for their daily labour. Those who mistrust science, but trust every piece of technology they own to do as promised – their car, their phone, their laptop. Those who bemoan the Covid-19 vaccine but who themselves have never suffered from smallpox or polio, and survived their childhood bout of measles or chickenpox, thanks the vaccines they received as infants. The cognitive dissonance is palpable.

READ | Mandy Wiener: Vaccine hesitancy and fake news: Government needs to up its communication

It might be that people have forgotten, or just don’t know, how bad these diseases really are – how many millions died from smallpox, how terrible chickenpox and measles can be if you are not vaccinated. We forget how bad polio was, and how many children were left dead or permanently disabled from the poliovirus.

While it might be fashionable to deny science, and to "do your own research", please understand that, unless you have a PhD in virology, biochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology or another related field, you don’t understand how vaccines work.

Understand that unless you work in a laboratory, and you do the experiments, and you write up your findings, and those findings are double-blind reviewed by your scholarly peers, and you have revised your work based on their review, and that it has finally been published in a recognised journal with an academic press, you have not actually "done research".

A reason to listen to scientists

Reading a few blog posts, watching a few videos and listening to your cousin is not the same as doing scholarly research.

There is a reason to listen to these people - they spend years getting the highest possible qualification, years studying things that you don’t even know about and probably can’t even pronounce.

READ | Opinion: Covid-19 vaccine trust is still a missing ingredient

Yet, you trust the mechanic when he tells you that your gasket has blown, while you don’t trust the scientist who tells you that the vaccine is safe. Of course, some people experience side effects, but any substance can cause a severe reaction – some people take a Disprin and end up in hospital with a severe allergic reaction. Does this mean we ought not to take Disprin off the market?

It is time that we rehabilitate authority – that we understand that scientists are trying to save lives.

They are trying to help you see your children graduate and play with your grandchildren. While it is good to question the status quo, reject abuses of power, and not just accept what you are told, this is not one of those cases.

Please, listen to the scientists. Vaccinate.

- Dr Yolandi M Coetser is a philosopher at the School of Philosophy at North West University. 

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