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The dangers of magical thinking: an interview with Eric Oliver

Given the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of vaccines, why is there such resistance? The answer lies in the idea of ‘magical thinking’.

Hilly Janes Eric Oliver
28 September 2015
Imagining conspiracies

Raw milk rally, 2011. Demotix/R. Jeanette Martin. All rights reserved.

Raw milk rally, 2011. Demotix/R. Jeanette Martin. All rights reserved.If you want to buy raw, unpasteurised milk in the US, you may be out of luck. Its sale and distribution is strictly controlled – as it is in the UK – and in some cases illegal. Raw milk contains bacteria that can be harmful to humans, but consumers who believe it is healthier, and that pasteurisation may even destroy some of its nutrients, are clubbing together to share a cow, or even a herd.

It’s a kind of Dallas Buyers Club for milk

“It’s a kind of Dallas Buyers Club for milk,” says Professor Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, referring to the film that tells the true-life story of an Aids victim who smuggled unapproved drug therapies into Texas in the 1980s, and distributed them to fellow sufferers.

The professor’s current research is into ‘transgressive beliefs’: why people believe in things that run foul of what political, scientific and economic authorities are telling them. For public health officials, such beliefs are very challenging, especially when dealing with anxious parents in an era of economic uncertainty and confusion over gender roles.

Flickr/StockMonkeys. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/StockMonkeys. Some rights reserved.Take immunisation. “Around 20 percent of Americans believe that vaccines cause autism or other psychological disorders,” Oliver explains. “It’s an important political issue in the US, with some states making vaccination for schoolchildren compulsory and parents resisting those mandates.”

While the “anti-vaxxers” are less cause for concern in the UK, the latest figures from NHS England show that the national coverage for the amount of routine childhood vaccinations has fallen slightly, with, worryingly, only 38 of 149 local authorities meeting the target of 95 percent for MMR1.

Magical thinking is a kind of palliative

Given the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of vaccines, why is there such resistance? One explanation, Oliver says, is ‘magical thinking’, the idea that there is an unseen force causing something to happen, when there is an observable and verifiable explanation to the contrary.

There’s a strong emotional element, he maintains. Magical thinking is a kind of palliative that people use to make themselves feel better. A mother may believe that a vaccination could produce terrible side effects, for which she could never forgive herself – in spite of evidence to the contrary, so she decides not to vaccinate. Magical thinking is helping her alleviate anxiety and potential guilt.

Flickr/Heather Lowther/CEH. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/Heather Lowther/CEH. Some rights reserved.In some ways vaccines are a victim of their own success. “In India,” Oliver points out, “parents worry that their children might get life-threatening diseases and they are grateful for vaccines. But in a western context, where the incidence of such diseases are low, concern for our children's wellbeing may be expressed as a fear of needles and the toxic substances they are perceived to introduce.” Magical thinking is also typified by jumping to conclusions. Autism disorders are often diagnosed at about two years old, not long after children have been vaccinated. The events are perceived as linked, rather than being coincidental.

Vaccines are a victim of their own success

Food is another source of parental anxiety that often correlates with fear of vaccines, Oliver observes. While there is a tiny percentage of people who suffer from coeliac disease and must avoid gluten, many non-coeliacs believe that eliminating it from their diet will make them healthier, despite any supporting evidence. (And a stroll round any supermarket in the UK will show how eager the food industry is to cash in on ‘gluten-free’ in the UK). “It’s looking for something that has an intuitive plausibility and makes them feel better,” he explains.

“Natural” is good, however – hence the raw milk movement. But apprehension about adding stuff to our bodies that is perceived to be the opposite, such as genetically modified food, often goes hand in hand with ‘anti-vax’ and ‘gluten-free’. Like vaccines, GM foods are thought to add something that wasn’t there already and that could be harmful.

Flickr/UCI Irvine. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/UCI Irvine. Some rights reserved.A lot of this circles around parental concerns, highlighting anxiety and apprehension about what’s right for our children. “One reason is the changing nature of childhood,” Oliver says. “A century ago children were productive assets who could work on the family farm or continue the family firm.” He quotes his grandfather, who told him: “We had four children so we could lose one”. Now children are there to fulfil our emotional needs, and they are costly rather than productive.

In an uncertain economic climate, where the middle classes worry about whether their children will be able to sustain their social position, food and vaccine issues get caught up in this apprehension, making fertile ground for magical thinking. Sexual politics plays its part too. As women’s roles have become less clearly defined and there are expectations that they will have a great career as well as being parents, OIiver notes increased apprehension about what it means to be a good mother.

By vaccinating you are helping protect others

What’s the answer? As magical thinking is palliative, telling parents that terrible things will happen if they don’t vaccinate their children, or do give them raw milk, only creates a counter-productive vicious circle of anxiety, Oliver believes. Playing on our altruistic instincts might be a better course of action: “By vaccinating you are helping protect others, your neighbours’ children and classmates and reinforcing the idea of herd protection.” It’s also important to reinforce that there are no adverse outcomes linked to commonly used vaccines – “all the ‘research’ that has said the opposite has been thoroughly discredited”, he argues. Schools and other political institutions should reinforce that to mitigate the damage done to public health by contagious disease.

While some magical thinking can be deadly serious, other types are pure comedy. When the professor conducted research into baby naming and discovered different preferences between Democrats and Republicans, for example, he was approached afterwards by parents anxious to know which names might offer the best start in life for their little ones. Let’s hope the professor doesn’t embark on how raw milkers with the best yields name their cows any time soon. 

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


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