Vaccine Suspicions and the Ancient Gods

The absurdity and anti-scientific arguments generated by anti-vaxxers (even in the previous history of this magazine) can be better understood by examining similar movements in previous generations. Unsupported conspiracy theories seem to be an inescapable characteristic of human behaviour.

The absurdity and anti-scientific arguments generated by anti-vaxxers (even in the previous history of this magazine) can be better understood by examining similar movements in previous generations. Unsupported conspiracy theories seem to be an inescapable characteristic of human behaviour.

Current opposition to vaccines, as well as vaccine mandates, attests to the persistence of superstitious or pre-scientific habits of mind. Superstition of one popular variety or another endures today, centuries after our ancestor-scientists began racking up one myth-busting discovery after another. Their method was simple: observe the natural world without preconception or bias.

By contrast, the science-averse of long ago — shamans, astrologers, and other occultists — clung to beliefs for which there could be no empirical evidence. To give just one arbitrary example from the realm of astral theology, the stars, due to their divine nature it was presumed, moved around the heavens in perfect circles.

Opinions based on wishful thinking, intuition, or feelings, unsupported by concrete evidence, are irrational by definition. It’s similarly irrational to reject findings for which there’s overwhelming evidence, like the effectiveness of vaccines in combatting such diseases as polio, measles, and Covid-19. Among the many services that medical science has rendered to humanity, vaccines rank as one of the most beneficial. Acceptance of vaccines is rational because their benefits have been proven.

That a significant vocal minority today rejects vaccines as harmful, even life-threatening, reminds us that groundless opinions continue to flourish long after the emergence of scientific medicine.

No less astute an early psychologist than Queen Elizabeth I wrote, in one of her occasional poems, that no physical defect can compare to the ugliness of “the inward suspicious mind.”

While the ancient world wasn’t beset with misinformed hostility to vaccines, it did grapple with other forms of irrational conduct that cried out for explanation. Back then, one reason cooked up to explain foolish behaviour was psychic intervention by supernatural agents. The gods of Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, have the power to deprive mortals of good judgment. When “Glaukos the blameless,” fighting the Greeks alongside the Trojans, swapped his gold armour, worth a hundred oxen, for bronze, worth only nine, it was because Zeus “stole away” his wits. A capricious other-worldly manipulator, not the valiant Glaukos, whose intelligence “surpassed all others,” was responsible for the slipup.

After the gods, demi-gods, and assorted supernatural beings of the ancient world retired from meddling in human affairs, personal decision-making and responsibility got a well-deserved boost. When judgment fails nowadays, we hold ourselves responsible, except in cases of emotional or mental disturbance beyond normal control. A modern-day Glaukos, unlike the soldier of the ancient epic, would no longer be “blameless.” He’d be held responsible for his own lapse in judgment. We’d expect a contemporary Glaukos to act according to the fact that gold is worth far more than bronze.

 “What was he thinking?” is the modern refrain of incredulity when someone like Glaukos behaves contrary to common sense or facts. Our attention focuses on the decision-making mind itself. Probed with enough perspicacity, it can reveal hidden motivations that drive false beliefs and irrational behaviour. This is especially the expectation of psychologists who gather survey data about people’s opinions.

As a new field of psychological interest, vaccine “hesitancy” has spawned numerous surveys. Why do some people distrust or reject the science of infectious diseases that has made life-saving vaccines possible? What related beliefs do vaccine skeptics hold?

A common theme that emerges out of the many surveys about getting vaccinated is mistrust. Free-ranging suspicion, unjustified by evidence, may be the signature psychological trait of vaccine skeptics. The belief that vaccines, including those for Covid, aren’t safe occurs alongside mistrust of authority figures — medical scientists like disease experts but also government officials.

Research shows that vaccine deniers are also more likely to mistrust traditional sources of information — newspapers, television, and radio — as well as government agencies and established medical associations. On social media, they embrace like-minded “experts” with questionable qualifications who deliver junk science and anti-vaccination disinformation.

The multi-pronged suspicions of vaccine skeptics easily morph into conspiracy theories. A 2018 study found that respondents with the strongest conspiratorial beliefs also held the strongest anti-vaccination attitudes. Similarly, people who doubt that Covid poses a serious health risk are more likely to buy into conspiracy theories, like the outlandish one that medical scientists or pharmaceutical companies unleashed the coronavirus to profit from treating the illness it causes. A suspicious mind is always one step away from losing touch with reality altogether — of descending into paranoia.

Anti-vaccination websites themselves confirm what the surveys reveal about vaccine objectors’ beliefs. As expected, they cast suspicion on government authorities and scientists. A typical allegation is that public health authorities are hiding vital information about the dangers of vaccines. Each of the eight anti-vax websites surveyed in 2009 peddled one or more such conspiracy theory.

It seems as if unwarranted suspicion, once rooted in the thinking process, tends to encompass an ever-expanding swath of baseless beliefs. Like all human emotions, positive and negative, distrust roams far and wide in search of fresh pastures. If suspicion isn’t as clearly destructive as, for example, jealousy, its wanderlust is no less well-established.

Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon opposed the occultism of his age and championed scientific research. He optimistically believed that the remedy for suspicion of other people was to learn more about them. In his essay “Of Suspicion,” he wrote: “There is nothing makes a man suspect much, more than to know little.” In theory, more information should reverse distrust of experts in, say, immunology and infectious diseases.

But psychologists have noted that facts alone may not gain traction in the distrust-clouded minds of vaccine objectors. Well-intentioned attempts to debunk vaccine myths may backfire, further entrenching fierce resistance to empirical evidence as abundant as that which confirms that vaccines prevent serious illness and save countless lives. Antagonistic suspicion may act like a fact-proof barricade between anti-vaccination opinions and scientific evidence.

Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was more pessimistic than Bacon about the ability of added knowledge to change attitudes. A man’s “innermost nature,” he wrote, could not be influenced “from without, by instructing him, otherwise we should be able to create him anew.” Mistrust may be one of those “unalterable tendencies” of character that Schopenhauer believed remain “essentially the same to the very end.” Recent research by behavioural geneticists into the heritability of negative behavioural tendencies such as antagonism, violence, even lack of conscience, would seem to back up Schopenhauer’s view.

We can’t turn suspicious people into trusting ones merely by offering them leaflets about infectious diseases and vaccines any more than we can conjure up virtuous people by forcing them to sit through sermons. Protesters waving “Covid is a hoax” placards outside hospitals and schools disregard the fact that tens of thousands in Canada and millions worldwide have died of the disease. “Every opinion,” wrote sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, “is of force enough to cause itself to be espoused at the expense of life.”

Baseless mistrust is as indelible a feature of human nature as malice, spitefulness, stubbornness, and the already mentioned jealousy. Our powers of rational judgment have always been obstructed by adverse emotions — what US philosopher and psychologist William James called the “darker, blinder strata of character.” No less astute an early psychologist than Queen Elizabeth I wrote, in one of her occasional poems, that no physical defect can compare to the ugliness of “the inward suspicious mind.”

For our pre-scientific ancestors, supernatural or supernormal beings helped to explain irrational behaviour like that of Glaukos in Homer’s Iliad. In the other Homeric epic, the Odyssey, the deities of the Greek pantheon also serve to explain nonrational impulses. Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, says that the gods can turn even “a very sensible person into a senseless one.”

If the Iliad or the Odyssey had ventured to explain why Zeus, supreme ruler of the universe and human society, would compel a mortal like Glaukos to act irrationally, it might have uncovered a truth obvious to us today. The ugly emotions and desires embedded in human nature served as blueprints for the invention of ancient gods who were tasked with, among other pleasures, afflicting humans with illness and disease. It was by human design that the deities of ancient Greece were sometimes as irrational as they were powerful.

The groundless mistrust of vaccine opponents distorts how they view the emotionally neutral knowledge derived from scientific medicine. Honed since ancient times, such adverse pre-scientific habits of mind are here to stay. But if life-saving vaccines prove anything, it’s that the spirit of science can prevail over the irrational ways of human nature.