According to Wikipedia, a conspiracy theory is defined as "an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation." To me personally, a conspiracy theory isn't simply about the cover-up -- it's about an unshakeable belief in something for which there's no evidence, only coincidence and speculation. We do a lot of complaining around here about conspiracy theories,those who subscribe to them and who often can't be reasoned with, and those whoperpetuate them by way of traditional and social media. We do this because believing in something without proof to back up that belief or assertion is dangerous. I've said it before with regard to religion, but it extends outward into the realm of conspiracy theories because both, when you get right down to it, are the same: they each require faith and conviction in the face of a complete lack of concrete evidence to prove them correct.
Why are conspiratorial beliefs dangerous? Because, as with religious faith, those beliefs aren't benign -- they influence and inform actions. Nobody simply believes something without that belief impacting the way he or she behaves. If you're convinced Jesus is coming back soon and will judge us all, casting the unworthy into a pit of fire for all eternity, not only are you going to tailor your life to the demands of the Bible, you'll probably also try to warn others of their potential impending doom. If you believe that the government of the United States purposely destroyed the World Trade Center and fired a missile at the Pentagon as a pretext for war in the Middle East, you won't trust a damn thing that government does or says beyond that, and your disillusionment will almost certainly manifest in public shouts of how everybody else just isn't seeing what you see. The end result in both of these cases, though, is the same, and that's that you'll prove you're willing to forgo applying the same amount of logic and reason equally across every subject you encounter in your life. If I tell you the sky is green outside right now, you'd want to see for yourself before you believed it -- but if I told you childhood vaccines cause autism, even though that theory has been debunked over and over again, maybe you'd simply take it on faith or attach confirmation bias to your inevitable bullshit Google searches.
It's easy to point and laugh at people like Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari, idiots peddling C-list celebrity pseudoscience and mothers who believe that their ability to create life has naturally imbued them with inherent moral superiority and a mainline into some secret medical knowledge doctors just don't have. It would be easy to dismiss their arrogance and their ongoing insemination of the national conversation with ignorance -- if only it weren't for the fact that doing so has the potential to get people killed. There are now measles outbreaks in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston, as well as an outbreak of mumps in Ohio. These are diseases industrialized society hasn't had to worry about in years, thanks almost entirely to vaccines. And now they're on the rise again not only in the United States but in other Western countries like Great Britain, a mere transcontinental flight away from a potential pandemic in the year 2014. All because in some areas herd immunity has been compromised by parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids as directed by the CDC and its counterparts. All because of a grossly irresponsible misinformation campaign -- spread, ironically, virally via social and traditional media -- preaching nonsense about how vaccines are linked to autism and other childhood diseases and how the medical establishment, in collusion with Big Pharma, seeks to suppress this truth in the name of turning a profit. It's the definition of a conspiracy theory. And stupid people are eating it up.
According to a recent study at the University of Chicago, half of all Americans believe medical conspiracy theories. 20-percent say doctors push vaccines on children knowing they cause autism; a full third claim the government is stymying natural cures in the name of making money for Big Pharma; some residents of Portland, Oregon have spent the past few years fighting City Hall to keep fluoride out of the city's water supply beginning this year. All of these beliefs are based on crap science, heavily circulated misinformation, and a general distrust of anything resembling the "official version" of events, no matter what those events happen to be. Of the cases of measles reported in the current outbreak in L.A., nearly half chose not to vaccinate or had parents choose for them, while two of the cases in New York City were children whose parents refused to vaccinate. There's no excuse for any of this. None. To subscribe to anti-vaccination lunacy requires a willingness to dismiss a mountain of contrary evidence while embracing a view for which there's absolutely no evidence. What's more, it relies on a near sociopathic disregard for the lives of other people's children and the community at large, because the decision not to vaccinate isn't simply a personal one -- it has far-reaching and potentially very dangerous repercussions.
This is why it's important to keep the pressure on these people, whether it's the internet hordes pummeling Jenny McCarthy via Twitter the other day or column after column devoted to highlighting the direct role that anti-vaccination advocates are playing in the resurgence of diseases long thought conquered. There's principle behind it: a desire to see enlightenment trump ignorance and to stem the tide of conspiracy theorist misinformation; a visceral recoiling at the notion that in the year 2014, with the accumulation of fact we can summon in an instant, there's still a willingness to believe things for which there isn't an ounce of proof offered by respectable sources. But beyond the abstract there's a direct and dire reason to never given an inch to the anti-vaccination crowd: because their actions are going to cause physical harm to others for no reason other than their own ignorance.