Tag Archives: theories
But there’s a long history of opposition to childhood vaccination, from when it was introduced in England in 1796 to protect against smallpox. And many of the themes played out more than 200 years ago still resonate today.
For instance, whether childhood vaccination should be compulsory, or whether there should be penalties for not vaccinating, was debated then as it is now.
Throughout the 19th century, anti-vaxxers widely opposed Britain’s compulsory vaccination laws, leading to their effective end in 1907, when it became much easier to be a conscientious objector. Today, the focus in Australia has turned to ‘no jab, no pay’ or ‘no jab, no play’, policies linking childhood vaccination to welfare payments or childcare attendance.
Of course, the methods vaccine objectors use to discuss their position has changed. Today, people share their views on social media, blogs and websites; then, they wrote letters to newspapers for publication, the focus of my research.
Many studies have looked at the role of organised anti-vaccination societies in shaping the vaccination debate. However, “letters to the editor” let us look beyond the inner workings of these societies to show what ordinary people thought about vaccination.
Many of the UK’s larger metropolitan newspapers were wary of publishing letters opposing vaccination, especially those criticising the laws. However, regional newspapers would often publish them.
As part of my research, I looked at more than 1,100 letters to the editor, published in 30 newspapers from south-west England. Here are some of the recurring themes.
Smallpox vaccination a gruesome affair
In 19th century Britain, the only vaccine widely available to the public was against smallpox. Vaccination involved making a series of deep cuts to the arm of the child into which the doctor would insert matter from the wound of a previously vaccinated child.
These open wounds left many children vulnerable to infections, blood poisoning and gangrene. Parents and anti-vaccination campaigners alike described the gruesome scenes that often accompanied the procedure, like this example from the Royal Cornwall Gazette from December 1886:
Some of these poor infants have been borne of pillows for weeks, decaying alive before death ended their sufferings.
Conspiracy theories and vaccine cults
Side-effects were so widespread many parents refused to vaccinate their children. And letters to the editor show they became convinced the medical establishment and the government were aware of the dangers of vaccination.
If this was the case, why was vaccination compulsory? The answer, for many, could be found in a conspiracy theory.
Their letters argued doctors had conned the government into enforcing compulsory vaccination so they could reap the financial benefits. After all, public vaccinators were paid a fee for each child they vaccinated. So people believed compulsory vaccination must have been introduced to maximise doctors’ profits, as this example from the Wiltshire Times in February 1894 shows:
What are the benefits of vaccination? Salaries and bonuses to public vaccinators; these are the benefits; while the individuals who have to endure the operation also have to endure the evils which result from it. Health shattered, lives crippled or destroyed – are these benefits?
Conspiracy theories went further. If doctors knew vaccination could result in infections, then they knew children died from the procedure. As a result, some conspiracy theorists began to argue there was something inherently evil about vaccination. Some saw vaccination as “the mark of the beast”, a ritual perpetuated by a “vaccine cult”. Writing in the Salisbury Times, in December 1903, one critic said:
This is but the prototype of that modern species of doctorcraft, which would have us believe that their highly remunerative invocations of the vaccine god alone avert the utter extermination of the human race by small-pox.
For many, the issue of compulsory vaccination was directly related to the rights of the individual. Just like modern anti-vaccination arguments, many people in the 19th century believed compulsory vaccination laws were an incursion into the rights enjoyed by free citizens.
By submitting to the compulsory vaccination laws, a parent was allowing the government to insert itself into the individual home, and take control of a child’s body, something traditionally protected by the parent. Here’s an example from the Royal Cornwall Gazette in April 1899:
[…] civil and religious liberty must of necessity include the right to protect healthy children from calf-lymph defilement […] trust […] cannot be handed over at the demand of a medical tradesunion, or tamely relinquished at the cool request of some reverend rural justice of the peace.
What can we learn by looking at the past?
If anti-vaccination arguments from the past significantly overlap with those presented by their counterparts today, then we can learn about how to deal with anti-vaccination movements in the future.
Not only can we see compulsory vaccination laws in Australia could, as some researchers say, be problematic, we can use the history of vaccine opposition to better understand why vaccination remains so controversial for some people.
For most people, being described as a “flat Earther” is an insult. The idea of the Earth being flat is considered not only wrong, but a model of wrongness, the gold standard of being incorrect about something.
This being so, oddly enough, most people described pejoratively as “flat Earthers” do not actually believe that the Earth is flat. “Flat Earther” is simply a scientifically seasoned variation of “idiot”.
For a recent example, US President Barack Obama recently expressed impatience with the persistent objections put forward by climate change deniers by saying: “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”
In a subsequent move that one can read as either very fortunate or very unfortunate, the real Flat Earth Society issued a statement in support the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change.
What do we do, then, when someone actually does believe that the Earth is flat, as the American rapper B.o.B expressed recently? The usual path seems to be blocked; it’s difficult to insult someone with a term that they themselves happily adopt.
Edge of the world
But what exactly is a “flat Earth theory”? In fact, there never has been anything called “the flat Earth theory”. Different cultures at different times have posited a staggeringly diverse array worldviews which cannot easily be summed up with the phrase “flat Earth.” Nor is the idea of a flat Earth something that is exclusive to the Western world.
Even the most cursory historical survey shows that the idea that the Earth is flat has been a notion shared by an extraordinarily wide range of cultures and tied to vastly different metaphysical systems and cosmologies.
It was a common belief in ancient Greece, as well as in India, China and in a wide range of indigenous or “pre-state” cultures. Both the poets Homer and Hesiod described a flat Earth. This was maintained by Thales, considered by many one of the first philosophers, Lucretius, an avowed materialist, as well as Democritus, the founder of atomic theory.
The ancient Greek conception, in turn, has some parallels with that of early Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought, with both thinking that the Earth was a large disc surrounded by a gigantic body of water. The ancient Chinese were also virtually unanimous in their view of the Earth’s flatness, although – in this system – the heavens were spherical and the Earth was square.
A number of ancient Indian conceptions, common – with some degree of variation – to ancient Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, tie their cosmography to botanical images, with the earth being comprised of four continents surrounding a mountain, akin to the way petals encircle the bud of a flower. Ancient Norse thought postulated a circular flat Earth surrounded by a sea inhabited by a giant serpent.
Others, like the Mountain Arapesh people of Papua New Guinea, envisage a world which ends at the horizon, the place where giant clouds gather. But even where commonalities exist across these traditions, vastly different metaphysical and cosmological narratives are at stake.
And, to complicate matters, to these we must add cultures and intellectual traditions for whom the shape of Earth is of no interest whatsoever. Many tribal or pre-state societies, for instance, have little concern for what might be considered cosmography.
Turtles all the way down
However, from at least the 6th century BCE, the theory of the flat Earth began to fall out of favour. By the time we get to Aristotle in the 4th century BCE, the idea of a spherical Earth is commonplace, at least among the educated classes. And by the 1st Century BCE it is considered an uncontroversial truth. Having said that, the theory of a flat Earth has continued as a minor tradition in thought, like a handful of theories in science, such as Lamarckianism and vitalism.
Despite the historical tide having long turned, the mid 20th century saw the establishment of the Flat Earth Society, started in 1956 by Samuel Shenton, whose work was continued by the retired aircraft mechanic, Charles K. Johnson, in 1972.
From California (where else?), Johnson functioned as president for The International Flat Earth Society. As its spokesman, he made a series of claims that have now become widespread outside the flat Earth community: the Apollo moon landings were faked, and that the correct view of the world is the traditional Christian one of the earth being flat.
Johnson, interestingly enough, didn’t get only his cosmology wrong, he got his history and theology wrong as well. Orthodox Christian thinkers, at least since 5th century on, have supported the idea of a spherical Earth, from Bede through to Thomas Aquinas.
Indeed, as the University of California historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has argued, very few educated people in the West after the 3rd century BCE thought that the world was flat. This goes directly against the common belief that most people in medieval times believed the Earth was flat.
How unenlightened they were
But, if the flat Earth serves as a kind if myth or fantasy for those who believe in it, there are also myths about the flat Earth that are just as widespread.
One of the most widely propagated myths in the contemporary world is the belief that Columbus was advised by the Catholic Church to abandon his journey on the basis that he risked falling off the edge of the world.
It’s source is the 19th century writer, Washington Irving, author of other rigorous historical accounts such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.
What this suggests is that we are sometimes overly keen to enlist the past – or our version of the past – in our attempts to feel better about how enlightened we are and how benighted were our predecessors.
That, of course, does not mean that nobody believed the Earth was flat in the middle ages; nor does it entail that nobody believes it today. Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, famously claimed to not believe in a whole series of modern ideas which he though were contrary to Islam – including the spherical shape of the Earth.
If there is anything truly astounding about BoB’s improbable cosmographical musings, it’s that the battle between him and Neil deGrasse Tyson is, at this stage at least, being carried out only through the medium of rap. That could be a historical first for cosmography.
The link below is to an article that looks at some early theories relating to the origin of language.
Norma Jeane Mortenson (Norma Jeane Baker) was Born
However, it is probably her relationship with President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, as well as her untimely death (with the many conspiracy theories that surround it) on the 5th August 1962 that are most prominent in her story.
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