Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembrance Day

Given how much I write about war here, it only feels appropriate to mention Veterans day. Or Remembrance day. Or Armistice Day. It's a tricky holiday, mainly solemn, but with such a strong focus on service and internationalism it's hard to not get lost pondering it.

My initial response to today was to be annoyed at the change that has befallen Armistice Day. This day, 91 years ago, ended the most needless war in human history. It ended for many thoughts of glory in war, and it especially ended (for all but one nation) the notion of glory on the offense. It was a powerful halt. Humanity would give it one more go before throwing out the very idea of actually fighting annihilistic war, but WWI was the first moment when not fighting wars even became a considered idea. Honoring the Armistice is important.

A blogging acquaintance of mine posted today a great, semi-connected series of remembrances. Most striking about her memories and the stories she relays second-hand are their modernity. While very few alive today remember WWI, Europe saw hot war in the past two decades. And we forget so easily in the West that while hot war may be dead at home such peace is a modern anomaly. We forget that many parts of the world suffer lingering effects of where our Cold War was actually fought, or where our abandonment and indifference let senseless war happen again. Rwanda may now be as much a part of history books as WWI, but that's still only 15 years old. Hesitancy to act and memory of the costs of engaging in war must always be measured against the costs of inaction. Remembering only part of it helps no one.

Then there is veterans day. I have only one immediate relative that actually fought in any war - my father and uncles were not part of US action in Vietnam, and my maternal grandfather has been a cyclops since he was six. So the veteran I knew was my paternal grandfather, Alfred Leroy Atherton Jr. I've written about him before, and I have this somewhat mythologized version of his legacy as family history. He was late to WWII, and spent his year or so in the war as the spotter in a plane scouting for an artillery division. It's easy to make metaphors about that - "he saw the totality of war" or "he was removed enough from combat to get the big picture", and it is very tempting to make these part of the myth. I don't actually think his experience as a spotter specifically influenced his life that much, but I never had the chance to ask. What I do know is this: after the war, and after finishing his degree on the GI Bill, he joined the Foreign Service, and his first deployment was in what was becoming West Germany. He became a diplomat, and spent 36 years as an agent of his country working to prevent wars.

It's for this reason, I think, that I tend to link appreciation for diplomats with appreciation for veterans. We respect and honor those who served their countries in times of need. I just support a definition of that service which includes those who did everything they could to keep us out of wars.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Agency: A Case Study

The latest bit of life-threatening trivia that's seen some major media coverage has been the fear of a link between vaccines and autism. Such a link does not exist. The science is there, is solid, and is not an evil plot. So why does the myth persist? As the linked-to story in Wired says, parents are willing to do anything out of love for their children. They are eager and willing to believe in alternative cures, or in radical measures to save their children. A lot of emphasis has been places on this as a failure of rationale choice: vaccines are inherently safer than the diseases they protect against. A striking visual example is this chart discussing the risk of taking the HPV vaccine versus the risk of not doing so. HPV not in any way associated with Autism, but the case against HPV is similar: well-publicized incident of a side effect gone wrong, or of the potential for a harmful side-effect, with little real coverage of the damage caused by not taking the vaccine. To scientists (and, generally, to rational human beings) this makes no sense: the least risky action is desired, and should be taken.

So why the resistance to vaccinations? Agency.

People see themselves as having control over whether or not to get a vaccination; they are upset at laws about mandatory vaccinations, which to them imposes the risk of side effects. In refusing to be vaccinated or vaccinate their own children, this people are acting against the only risk they perceive: that caused by vaccines themselves.

They are, at the same time, assuming that disease is a factor beyond their control. Getting infected by any of the diseases that a vaccine would protect against is seen as something against which they are powerless (or, more likely, unaware), and so isn't a risk to avoid. They've seen/read/researched the stories about things gone terribly wrong with vaccines. But the renewed outbreak of diseases like measles (basically non-existent for my generation and the one immediately preceding it) doesn't register as a new risk. These people, these parents fearful of autism (or more generally the mercury in all vaccines) are making a terrible assessment of the possible risks, but it's not irrational - they just have no idea of the risks where the balance of risk falls.

Most relevantly, they don't see getting vaccinated as reducing risk. Because exposure to disease isn't something they have control over, but exposure to medicine totally is. It's a major disconnect they've developed between vaccinations and disease. The solution? Coming from my social-sciencey background, I'm inclined to think that the problem can be solved by a reframing of vaccination. Vaccinating is a choice just as much as not vaccinating is, and the positive good caused by vaccines is little publicized, and even more rarely seen as an actual decision.

We humans remember when things go wrong. We have a terrible problem with forgetting when and why things went right.