Even though I have been a life-long atheist, that has not exempted me from holding non-religious beliefs. Just like religious belief, there are some non-religious beliefs that are harmless and some that are outright dangerous. My non-religious belief was one of the dangerous ones. I used to be anti-vaccination.
I was 10 years old when my little brother was born. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at first, he seemed like a regular baby to me. As he got older I would hear adults talking about him, and it was clear by what I was hearing that he was not a “normal” toddler. Through absorbing snippets of the adult talk that I would eavesdrop on, I came to learn that my brother had something wrong with him, and it was likely caused by being vaccinated.
My brother Connor is one of my absolute most favourite people in the world. When he was a toddler her would build scale versions of various parts of our city using Hot Wheels cars. He could visit a location only once, and he would be able to tell you how to get there and back home on each subsequent visit – he is a human compass, he is a human map. Best. Driving. Companion. EVER! Well, except that he likes to be sneaky and tell you the directions which take you through the longer, more scenic routes.
He becomes enveloped in a world in his imagination, and you know that the toys he is holding in his hands actually represent something far greater as he makes epically cinematic sound effects to accompany his imagined adventures.
My brother is autistic, and he is the prime example of the beauty of the autism spectrum. The stereotype is that all autistic people have angry outburst and that they cannot be empathetic to other people. My brother is not “normal”, and I mean that in the best possible way. The “normal” people can learn a thing or two about empathy from my brother. He is incredibly concerned with the feelings of others, especially for the feelings of children. He is quick to remind all of us that life for children is experienced differently than us adults are experiencing it, he reminds us to have more patience and to keep a calm voice. When one of my kids is doing something they aren’t supposed to, my brother will place himself between the kids and any adult who is about to scold them, he waves his hands at the adults, “They just don’t understand yet!”. My brother is a fantastically amazing, beautiful, intelligent, and caring. He is autistic, and I would not want him any other way and neither would he.
So it might be surprising to learn that when my first child was born I went into full freak-out mode about her “becoming” autistic (as if it was something she could catch, like a cold). The fear in me of anything bad happening to her was overwhelming. During that time, its like all of my knowledge of my brother went out the window, and all I could hear was the fearful ramblings of the adults whispering about my brother’s “condition”. It felt like my brain was a computer and the birth of my daughter set off some ridiculous fear programming, “Must ensure normalcy. Must not catch autism.”. Autism became my number one fear for my child, and vaccinations were the object which would deliver the autism.
I started researching autism, because I was so bound to avoid my children getting it. Of course, because my fear was already there and I was already biased towards thinking that vaccinations were a primary (but not sole) cause of autism, my research included only resources which would confirm my bias. I might have been an atheist, but I definitely was not yet a skeptic.
The thing is, I had a good education in science. In fact, I have always LOVED science. But this love and education in science did not immunize me against a fear of medical sciences. This was not just about vaccinations and autism, this was a culmination of a lifetime of fear-mongering paranoia that I was exposed to through family members and through media in regards to medical sciences. That is what primed me for jumping so quickly to the conclusion that vaccines and medical science are what is responsible for the condition of autism. My knowledge, my reason, was overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of anti-vaccine, anti-medical science propaganda. For a period of several years, the propaganda won.
Over the next few days I will share blog posts about how I figured out my ideas about vaccination and medical science were wrong, about the tactics that we need to take to show anti-vaxxers that vaccinations are helping not hurting, and about neurodiversity.
Here is one of my favourite videos about “alternative medicine” and fears about science. Tim Minchin’s The Storm.