Environment, Top Stories

Danger’s Deliverance

We encounter dangerous things and seek to get rid of them, often for good reason. But what about when doing so makes the world more dangerous?

Consider, for example:

While these behaviors are very different from one another, they stem from a view of danger as something to be eliminated rather than utilized. This is a problem because what makes things dangerous can also give them their power to save lives.

Why do we struggle to see the positive potential in frightfully dangerous things? And what can be done to inculcate a more mature view? To answer these questions we must first take a closer look at what we mean by danger.


The current meaning of danger — “exposure or liability to injury, pain, harm, or loss” — replaced an older meaning of danger, which was of a jurisdiction or property, e.g., “You stand within his danger, do you not?” a range, e.g., “out of the shot and danger of desire,” and harm, e.g., “a sting in him that at his will he may do danger with.” (All quotes are from Shakespeare.)

In Shakespeare’s day, danger referred to both a place controlled by a powerful person, a lord, as well as to generic sense of harm. The word danger comes from the Latin dominium, or ownership. To be “in danger” was to be in a place of power — on the land of the lord. Whether power was negative (if, say, you were trespassing) or positive (you were the lord’s guest) depended on your perspective, status, and what you were doing.

The power to harm and to protect were thus often one and the same, or at least closely related. The 19th Century German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, observed that, “Where there is danger, so too grows salvation.” The German word for salvation, Das Rettende, can also be translated as “the saving power,” or “the rescuing.”

And isn’t that what vaccines were — humankind’s salvation? Before we had them disease epidemics would periodically wipe out large swaths of the population. The Black Death (1347–51) wiped out 60 percent of Europe. As a weakened form of a deadly virus, vaccines train the body how to fight more dangerous versions of itself. They are thus a powerful metaphor for the approach I am advocating toward danger in general.

As a society we have largely forgotten how terrible measles, mumps, smallpox, and polio epidemics were and still are, thanks to the efficacy of vaccines. As a result, many parents refuse to vaccinate their children, believing popular myths about their danger. This has resulted in deadly outbreaks, such as the 2015 measles outbreak from exposures at Disneyland.

The upside of disease outbreaks is that they remind us of the importance of vaccines. In response to recent outbreaks, vaccination rates soared, and the California legislature required all students attending public schools to be vaccinated.

Some parents embrace the exposure of their children to sickness. Indeed, the same “helicopter parent” who hovers over her son playing on the monkey bars might the next minute wave away concerns that he is kissing another boy with a runny nose by saying, “It’s okay — it will strengthen his immune system.”

Now, having successfully wiped out smallpox virus from societies, governments are debating whether to eliminate the disease for good. Smallpox killed an astonishing 500 million people in the 20th Century — three times more than died in every war in that century combined. Understandably, then, experts want the U.S. and Russia to destroy the last remaining smallpox stocks.

Why, then, have we still not destroyed the last remaining vials of smallpox? Because, for 25 years, a small but increasingly influential group of scientists has argued that we might one day find a beneficial use to the virus. Their case has been helped by the fact that a modified form of polio is currently being used to treat cancer, and dozens of other viruses are candidates for immunotherapy.


Unfortunately, many parents today do not extrapolate their healthy view of their children’s immune systems to other aspects of their lives. Just a few decades ago, parents and teachers used to let children roam freely, without supervision; experience the pain of losing in sports without the salve of a “participation trophy”; and discuss emotionally charged material without trigger warnings. What changed?

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education partly attribute over-protection and coddling to rising crime in the 30 years after 1960. But many of the students demanding that colleges be “safe spaces,” and trigger warnings be issued, were raised after violent crime peaked in 1990, and started its steady decline. True, parents who kept their children home rather than allowing them to roam freely may have believed crime was rampant. But, if that is indeed the case, why are parents so confused? Perhaps fault lies with the media. Both Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud made the case that rising civilization and pacification of societies would result in ever-more violent and frightening fantasies. Any look at the evolution of Hollywood films and television programming over the last century confirms this.

How should we deal with widespread overprotection of children from moderate levels of danger? Lukianoff and Haidt argue that universities should discourage trigger warnings, encourage exposure therapy, and teach cognitive behavioral therapy. Exposure therapy is a way for highly fearful people, including those who have suffered trauma, to overcome their fears through gradual, low-level exposure to the fearful thing in question — sort of like a vaccine. Exposure therapy helps people overcome fears of everything from heights, spiders, public places, and emotionally charged discussions. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches people to talk back to our inner voices that lead us to “catastrophize” — exaggerate potential dangers.

Challenging young people incrementally, and exposing them to dangers, can make them stronger and more resilient, or as Nassim Taleb says: anti-fragile. Sports — without the participation trophies — offers modest hardship, both physical and emotional (when losing). Nations like Spain, Italy, and France, where drinking wine with meals is standard, were ranked as the least risky by the World Health Organization. And “resilience [drug and alcohol] education” trains young adults to make their own decisions than do inanely authoritarian “just say no” type efforts.

Does this mean we should subject kids to cruelty, or encourage alcohol and drug use? Of course not. Allowing very young children, as opposed to older teens, to sip alcohol may, in fact, create drinking problems later. And while experiencing some amount of hardship as a teenager and young adult makes us resilient, too much hardship too early can be severely damaging. Recall that vaccines are a weakened form of the virus.


Even the most dangerous things hold enormous potential to save lives. Nuclear energy is a dramatic example. It is one of the most dangerous things in the world, if not the most dangerous. But the same mechanism (splitting uranium atoms) can be used to either destroy cities or power them with cheap, clean energy.

Just as vaccines are a controlled and weaker form of the virus, a nuclear plant is a controlled and weaker form of a nuclear chain reaction. In a bomb, it’s the uncontrolled splitting of uranium atoms that results in a massive explosion. In a nuclear plant, it’s the controlled splitting of uranium atoms that results in functionally unlimited quantities of heat that can be used to create electricity, clean water, and hydrogen (for transportation) without air or water pollution.

Intriguingly, the same thing that makes nuclear weapons so dangerous is what makes nuclear power so safe: energy density. Only tiny quantities of uranium fuel are required in a bomb or a power plant. As such, even when something goes dreadfully wrong, such as at Chernobyl and Fukushima, only very small amounts of pollution escape into the environment. Nobody has died from exposure to the radiation from the Fukushima accident, and scientists estimate fewer than 200 people in total will die prematurely (over a period of decades) from the radiant pollution that escaped from the Chernobyl reactors.

By contrast, the burning of gigantic quantities of wood and coal end up caking cities like Delhi and Beijing in particulate matter, and shorten the lives of seven million people every year. As a result, scientists estimate that nuclear power has already prevented the premature deaths of 1.8 million people by avoiding the combustion of biomass and fossil fuels.

What about nuclear weapons? Progressives tend to fear them in general while conservatives fear them in the hands of our enemies. In 2002, President George W. Bush declared Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” and proceeded to invade Iraq with the express purpose of preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The result was 450,000 dead — four times more than were killed in Hiroshima — and worsening terrorist violence across the Middle East. North Korea responded by, quite understandably, obtaining the bomb. Now, Iran may do the same. The saving power in nuclear weapons is in preventing similarly horrendous invasions in the future.

Since their invention in 1945, the number of deaths in battle has declined 95 percent globally. After India and Pakistan got the bomb the number of battle deaths also declined 95 percent. There’s no mystery why. Nations with nuclear weapons pointed at each other exercise greater restraint. They fight skirmishes not full-scale wars. As such, the best part of a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran means the U.S. won’t replicate the idiocy of its invasion of Iraq.

But won’t more nations with nuclear weapons increase the chance that a weapon will be used in the future? The opposite appears to be the case. The closest humankind came to nuclear war was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961 — 16 years after the invention of the bomb. Since then, nations have put in place numerous safeguards to prevent against the accidental, unauthorized, and irrational use of a nuclear bomb. As a result, the number of close calls relating to the fearful technology has declined significantly over the last 50 years, even as the number of nations with the bomb doubled, from five to 10.

Can a kind of collective therapy help us overcome our understandable, but irrational, fears of nuclear power? Something like that worked for me. After Whole Earth Catalog founder and original hippie, Stewart Brand, changed his mind and spoke out publicly in favor of nuclear power, he motivated many environmentalists, including me, to rethink our views. Brand didn’t just talk back to our tendency to catastrophize nuclear power, he exposed us to his own experience of becoming pro-nuclear, creating a pathway out of fear through an evidence-based consideration of potential harms and benefits.


In her 1966 book, Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that our underlying belief systems, or ideologies, unconsciously determine what we believe is dangerous. We fear what we hate, and vice versa. In the late 1960s, environmentalists influenced by the misanthropic 19th century economist, Thomas Malthus, feared that the cheap energy provided by nuclear plants would result in overpopulation and overconsumption. These fears were intertwined and inseparable from fears of the bomb. Anti-nuclear groups began a concerted fear-mongering campaign, which aroused latent fears of radiation and nuclear weapons within the population, and tied them to an ideological vision of a non-nuclear world.

The success of anti-nuclear campaigning was greatly aided by a generational shift in attitudes toward danger in general. The so-called Greatest Generation, which had lived through the horrors of World War II, viewed nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent to preventing future world wars, and nuclear energy as a great improvement over fossil fuels. Their children, Baby Boomers, were by contrast raised in great security and prosperity. Relatively coddled, they were thus less vaccinated against danger than their parents had been. They were receptive to the childlike view of nuclear energy as an unmitigated danger and renewable energy as a way to re-harmonize human societies with a more natural order.

Over time, progressive parents came to adopt a Rousseauian view of children as pure, innocent, and vulnerable, and thus requiring constant coddling and over-protection. Childhood and nature became intertwined realms of fragility and purity. These parents distributed participation trophies, refused to make their children do chores, and supported efforts to make college campuses “safe spaces.”

The good news is that a backlash to such simple-minded and childlike views of danger, including those inevitably faced by children, is underway. Progressive parents are seeking to raise “free range kids” capable of exploring their neighborhoods and cities without their parents helicoptering around them. Professors are leading the charge against trigger warnings and safe spaces. Environmentalists and peace activists are reconsidering the value of nuclear power. Nobody is suggesting that every manifestation of danger is to be embraced. But, there are good reasons to believe that, over time — perhaps a generation — we can train ourselves to look for the saving power in danger.


Michael Shellenberger is the President of Environmental Progress, a research and policy organization and is a TIME magazine “Hero of the Environment.” Follow Michael on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD 

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  1. “Their children, Baby Boomers, were by contrast raised in great security and prosperity”

    That’s not how I experienced it. My parents did go through the depression and a war. They both lost siblings to disease – my father contracted yellow fever but survived. But they both lived in societies that tried to protect the innocence of childhood until they were old enough to cope.

    At a cruelly early age – 5 or 6 as I remember – I and my peers were exposed to a film of a house being hit by a distant nuclear explosion. First it burst into flames then, moments later, blown away by the blast. There was no motive or reason for this other than cold-war propaganda. I lay in bed at night comforting myself that our house was very solid and we were five miles or more from the most likely target.

    Since then, small children have been subjected to a succession of politically or commercially motivated scare campaigns. Being told that they had no future because the Earth was doomed because of climate change being perhaps the worst.

    The ravages of nature and instability of international affairs has been replaced by deliberate, industrial strength child abuse.

    • Steve says

      Good comment. I had a similar upbringing and lived for a while (my teens) at the centre of the UKs biggest nuclear target (a few miles from Faslane and Holyloch). I refused to be cowed by the doomsayers then, who were the same political bent as they are now. Likewise I refuse to be whipped into submission or depression now.
      Every year I spend some time (medical mission in PNG) in a culture 3 generations from the stoneage and it gives one a better perspective on life in the West.
      To speak to someone who remembers the stoneage like Yowaeh (78) from Debeparri will quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that the ‘paleo way’ is desirable.

    • Dear Dai,

      Thank you for sharing your story and your views. I believe you viewed a film of the incredible March 15, 1953 nuclear bomb test in Nevada.

      It’s not clear to me what anybody was trying to do in showing that to school children. It was like a kind of urge to share the trauma.

      In 1983, ABC produced a realistic made-for-TV movie called “The Day After” about nuclear war. I was 12. It opens with ordinary people going about their lives. Then, a nuclear blast incinerates them. Radiation vaporizes a classroom of children. We see the skull and bones of a mother and her small son, whom she is clutching, lit up as though by an x-ray machine.

      The rest of the movie is about the grisly struggle for survival by children in Kansas. To avoid poisoning by radioactive fall-out, they have to spend most of their days indoors, and underground.

      It’s almost as though the first heirs to the gifts from Prometheus end up the most burned.

      Thanks again for your comment.


      • Too bad they don’t show movies about the death and destruction of “saving” various cities from nuclear-desiring regimes, ISIS, Al Queda, Taliban… We have to destroy it to save it…

  2. Stephen Harrod Buhner says

    While I understand your points here, and you do make some good ones, I wish you would spend some time considering the fact that you are too binary in your assertions and perhaps your perspectives. It weakens your arguments considerably. I speak as one who spent too many years in the same position.

    For instance, your arguments regarding vaccinations. You really do need to do more in depth research before you make an either/or assertion about them. I don’t take the position of most anti-vaccination activists but neither do i take the pro-vaccination position which is that ALL vaccinations are an intelligent decision. They aren’t.

    By this I mean that there are two considerations that any intelligent person would take under consideration before they vaccinate their children. And in general, i think that every person should carefully consider any medical procedure they undergo or their children undergo before they undergo it. So: any vaccination should be carefully explored by reading the available scientific literature on it prior to accepting its use for our children. This is only prudence. The sad truth is that few physicians ever review that literature, they just give vaccinations and assume they are always safe. Unfortunately, they are not, as all the peer reviewed literature makes clear.

    Are they generally safe for most people? Yes, they are but there are various levels of safety for every one. So, point two: In the United States, every fee paid for a vaccination includes a portion to be paid into a fund to help pay for the care of children harmed by vaccinations. I know about this because a friend of mine, who vaccinated his son as a matter of course, was, well, emotionally undone when it turned that it caused severe mental retardation in his son. Various degrees of harm occur, all easily found on the internet or in peer review journals, even to the extent of death. This is absolutely not fringe science. It is why the fund exists.

    As a parent, i reviewed the literature, in depth, on vaccinations before i had my son vaccinated. We decided to forgo two of them and accept the rest, though in those days there were only ten or so that were recommended. I also had to give due consideration to the chances that the ones we did decide to give him would cause retardation or other damage.

    that there is only a one or two percent chance of this means nothing to the parent who experiences it and I have to admit I am pretty tired of the parents and children so affected being treated as a statistic without a deep grasp of the damage caused. The truth is few parents who have children who are harmed care at all for the usual dissociated response about the greater good.

    Every parent should be aware of the potential harm and they should think it over deeply and then choose.

    My point here is that the situation is not either/or, it is not binary, not black and white. You would do your cause a lot more good if you would become more complex and not so simplistic in your thinking. And you would alienate far fewer people than you are likely doing by being so inflexible in your thinking and speech.

    The foundational point you are going for is, i believe, worth pursuing and of worth. This is intended as supportive feedback and i hope you can take it that way.

    • Dear Stephen,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment and, in answer to your question, I take it as supportive feedback.

      I’m not sure we disagree on much. I have no trouble believing vaccines can be harmful. But overall, they’ve caused much, much more harm than good.

      And — every parent has to do what they feel is right for their children. I agree it’s not simple, or black and white.

      Best wishes,


        • Stephen Harrod Buhner says

          well, it was funny. (I hate it when i do that.)

        • Andy says

          That gave me a chuckle. Great article. Were baby boomers coddled? That feels a little like a hatchet job for a whole generation. They did have Korea and Vietnam.

          I was convinced on nuclear energy by the same hippie that the author was. I also remember that so-called environmentalist Al Gore (and Clinton and congress) shut down work on the promising Integral Fast Reactor back in 1994. It was able to re-use spent fuel and was to be better in almost every way than the Fukushima-style reactors. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integral_fast_reactor


    • Colin Megson says

      What are the parents to do who have no meaningful level of comprehension to “…review[ed] the literature, in depth, on vaccinations…”?

      An agency must be tasked to help such people make the most appropriate decisions and most importantly, steer them clear of the overt anti-vaccine, anti-data, anti-science charlatans.

  3. “Efforts to prevent nations like North Korea and Iran from getting nuclear weapons have given those nations greater motivation to acquire one.”

    Nah! Doesn’t work for me. There is way too much ideological difference in wanting nuclear weapons by these two countries to lump them together like this.

    If there wasn’t such opposition against Iran re nuclear weapons they would still desire them for their Islamic ideological ends – to counter western threat, to become powerful, to bully other states, to compete with neighbouring Pakistan.

    “As such, the best part of a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran means the U.S. won’t replicate the idiocy of its invasion of Iraq.”

    Granted West won’t be threatened by Iran’s nuclear arsenal. But Israel? Other Arab nations – Iraq?

    • Bill says

      Or the other side of the argument against proliferation is that the fear of nuclear weapons, as stated succinctly in a movie, is not the Nation that has tens or hundreds or thousands, it is the person who seeks to acquire just one. When a nation like the US, Russia, England, or France has an arsenal, they also go to great pains to insure the security of that arsenal since the loss of 1 which is then used by a non-state actor can result in a holocaust.

      Compare that to, for example, a hijacked Indian nuke being exploded in San Francisco. I don’t think anyone believes that the US would retaliate in kind versus if the weapon originated from Russia. It’s asymmetric warfare and there are targets that, frankly, are such s-holes that you can’t actually win a war there — Afghanistan is a perfect example. Military weapon systems designed and constructed to destroy in order to demoralize and force into submission do not work when the target has nothing to destroy and are already enduring the same hardship. You could nuke every major city in Afghanistan and it would do nothing to the living conditions there — no infrastructure to lose. Compare that to an EMP over the US that shutdown the Netflix!

    • Hi Reading (yes?)

      I’m not lumping them together. I’m saying that invading Iraq gave them both motivation to get a weapon which is not, as far as I know, a controversial view.

      I agree with your other point that Iran has other motivations e.g. prestige, bullying power (what academics dress up as “emboldenment”), etc.

      My point remains. Deterrence works. Thus, it is good. It keeps the peace.

      Israel would be balanced by a nuclear Iran. No Israeli leader can publicly acknowledge it, but that balance would be good for Israel.


      • Daniel says

        “Israel would be balanced by a nuclear Iran.”

        Dude. You just used “balance” and “Iran” in the same sentence. Never thought I’d see the day. I’m marking this one on my calendar.

        Are you sure you still think that’s a good idea?

        • Bill says

          Extending @Daniel’s remark — Israel balanced in what way by a nuclear Iran? Is there anyone who thinks Israel is about to nuke someone? The nonsecret-secret is that Israel has had nuclear weapons for decades — never used them, never threatened to use them, doesn’t even try to use them as a deterrent (which would mean admitting to having them). On the other side, we have Iran….

      • A nuclear weaponised Iran would be good for Israel? A country that does not believe Israel has a right to exist? I respectfully submit that you have chosen the worst possible example to make your point. And what if the Saudis then decide they need to balance things out a bit more? And the Egyptians? And the Turks? Where does it stop?

        I agree there is an argument for nuclear deterrence in a nuclear world. And up to now it has worked. But it is an inherently risky strategy, and risks need to be weighed against possible outcomes. I don’t think you have sufficiently acknowledged the risks of rogue actions or simple accidents, and how these risks increase as more states acquire nuclear weapons. Or the scale of devastation if things go bang. A nuclear power plant meltdown is nothing compared to a nuclear weapons exchange.

        • Thanks, DJM. I definitely agree with your last point.

          Nations that don’t need a weapon shouldn’t and won’t get one. Nations that really need one will. If we don’t want more nations to get weapons, then we should stop doing things that make them feel they need one.

          Today, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran are all following the same path as France, Britain, India, Pakistan, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland, who acquired peaceful nuclear plants in large part to have a weapons-option. Most will likely decide not to get a weapon, but keep nuclear power for all of its benefits, including their deterrent effect.

      • We don’t even allow those nations to have nuclear energy for fear of the bomb, when we could have provided aid for power and had some control and oversight and cooperation in place to deter the need for weapons.

    • Andy says

      North Korea could still flatten Seoul in about 20 minutes with conventional weapons if we tried any monkey business. I think that is actually the biggest tactical deterrent to meddling over there. $1 says that if we wait long enough, DPRK will just collapse on its own ala the USSR.

    • Colin Megson says

      Doesn’t work for me either. A statement [personal opinion] lacking any proof of cause and effect.

  4. Daniel says

    The second example of attempting to make something less dangerous but making it more so, of just-say-no programs backfiring, is spurious. The reason is that the cat is completely out of the bag on that one. You’ll never get kids who heavily use alcohol to appreciate the benefit of abstaining until 21. But that doesn’t mean that therefore they should drink at young ages. Nor does it mean that telling them the problems of drinking at young ages is the wrong thing to do.
    And are we really suggesting differentiating between use and abuse of illegal drugs?

    • I cited evidence showing that suggested there is a sweet spot for the right age to learn how to drink responsibility, and other evidence showing that abstinence only programs backfire. And, yes, I’m suggesting there is a huge difference between use and abuse of illegal drugs. And thank heavens for that otherwise many, many more people would suffer from substance abuse than actually do.

      • Abstinence only programs for teen pregnancy and abortions are proven failures. It’s better to educate, provide contraception, and even abortion when that all fails. Most who have abortions when they are young, get better at birth control over time, and many often have kids (if they don’t already have) as well.
        Most of the worst drinking in my life was when we were underage…mostly driving around because there was no place to go, and because we couldn’t just store drinks for later, we tended to consume it all.

  5. “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”

    –Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz

  6. Caligula says

    “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” said Friedrich Nietzsche. Except when it doesn’t, of course: challenges which don’t kill us may still leave us maimed or otherwise greivously injured.

    Which seems separete from the concept of risk vs. benefit. Potentially lethal outcomes are tolerated in medicine when the potential benefits are sufficient to justify the risk. For that matter, you might get bit by a car if you ride your bicycle today, yet if you enjoy riding and perceive the risk of getting hit to be low enough then surely you’ll do so anyway.

    It seems obvious that life is full of risks, and that a strategy of minimizing all risk regardless of any potential benefits is something so foolish that no onewould actually do this. Yet this essay seems to argue against this very straw man?

    And, yes, the vaccination argument is more complex, as arguably the optimum strategy for an individual is for everyone BUT you to get vaccinated, as that way you can mostly be protected without assuming even the small risks associated with the vaccination itself. Yet if everyone were to do this then everyone is at much greater risk than if everyone (or even almost everyone) got vaccinated.

    Nor is this the only problem case where local optimization prevents global optimization. But that’s not the problem explored here. Is it?

    • Yes, I explicitly said that there isn’t always saving power near danger, and agree with your point that sometimes injuries don’t make us stronger.

      I’m not sure what you’re saying is a straw man. I went through specific examples of how avoiding danger rather than seeking the saving power in or near it results in adverse outcomes.

  7. Mark Blaxill says

    There is some very sloppy thinking here about infectious disease. Yes, smallpox and polio epidemics were deadly and the vaccines successful. The smallpox vaccine was so successful it is no longer needed. Poliovirus vaccine has also been successful but has reached diminishing returns in terms of its value (it doesn’t circulate in the developed world and the vaccine itself is one of the main remaining causes of poliomyelitis in areas where that outcome is still a risk). Mumps was never deadly and mentioning it in the same breath as polio makes little sense. Measles is more complex, but was also rarely deadly when measles circulated in developed economies and mainly an issue for immuno-compromised individuals, who also face risk of exposure to those recently vaccinated with live virus measles vaccines. There is an entire generation of us who experienced infections from routine childhood diseases like measles, mumps and varicella and came out just fine.Mortality rates for all such diseases had dropped to extremely low rates well before vaccines were introduced.That doesn’t mean these vaccines had no benefits, just that those benefits are frequently overstated.

    The issue of vaccine hesitancy has less to do with denial of obvious public health risks and more to do with the unprecedented expansion of the recommended childhood vaccines, most of which target infections with far less serious consequences than smallpox or polio. This new schedule has never been tested in totality for its safety and represents an unprecedented experiment visited on a generation of children, an experiment that comes with extraordinary financial return for industry alongside an unprecedented levels of demonization directed at the private health care decisions thoughtful parents make for their children.

    There are some interesting points made here, but the public health argument is a tedious restatement of public health orthodoxy. I expect more thoughtful contrarian thinking from Quillette contributors.

    • Alex Russell says

      Measles isn’t dangerous? Tell that to the 89,000 people, mainly children, who died in 2016 from measles. And that was the first time global measles deaths were under 100,000.

      Vaccinations work so well that people forget that only 50 years ago pretty much everyone knew someone crippled or killed by disease that vaccination now prevent.

      • Mark Blaxill says

        Disease risks differ greatly in developed and developing economies. There have been two verified deaths from measles in the US in the 21st century and well over 2200 reported cases. The US death rate from measles infection in the 1960s was well under 1 in 1000. That death rate remained a cause for concern, but in a world population of many billions, the numbers you cite are not very large and not relevant to US public policy. The use of statistics like these that fail to consider context is part of the problematic hype here.

        A more subtle argument, perhaps, and one that serves the author’s case better is that by trying to remove the danger of infectious disease entirely, we intervene in the processes of natural immunity in ways that make us more vulnerable to disease and less healthy overall. .

    • Sydney says

      Mark Blaxill,

      I came late to this piece and your points echo mine (and those of many others) exactly. I expected more from Quillette than a rehash of dated, poorly considered vaccine orthodoxy that serves incredible financial interests over the immune systems (and lifetime health, ironically) of mass populations of newborns.

      Many highly credible, serious people (including science researchers) are questioning and studying the complex issues involved. All are handily dismissed by the mainstream as ‘crackpot anti-vaxxers’, which effectively silences all intelligent dissent and puts an unthinking public back onto ‘snooze’.

      Maybe you’ll consider writing a piece for Quillette. This subject is one of its weak spots. Quillette publishes a lot of pieces that are pablum-like for its readership. The vaccine issue is among the hottest and most complex today, and Quillette probably can’t touch it, either.

    • Agree with Mark Blaxill that the public health commentary felt very standard– like reading the NYT. Not that I always disagree with the NYT or hated this article, but as a parent who is not opposed to vaccination but is disturbed by and willing to question what seems increasingly like a poorly-researched medical trend (SO many vaccines, so soon, so often, so much fear-mongering, so much money to be made, so much refusal to engage with even a whiff of dissent), I can find the view that “vaccines are good! People who question them are bad!” basically anywhere. I like that Quillette is often full of opinions I don’t see elsewhere.

  8. Farris says

    The author asks “What happened?”
    Personally I believe society has become more fearful as it has become more interconnected. Cell phones, computers, 24 hour news cycles ect… People today have more information more quickly available to them than at any other time in history. The more you learn about the world the more scary it will seem. An example from my childhood. When I was around 10 we moved from rural area to a city big enough to have it’s own local tv newscast. Every day I would be home from play at 5:00pm to help with dinner and the local news would be playing on the television. One segment of the news was the traffic report which cataloged the daily accidents. I had never realized there were so many accidents in a day, week or month. I became fearful and concerned my dad was going to be in an accident traveling to and from work. It seemed as only a matter of time before his number would come up. What our minds fail to grasp are theses events (accidental, deaths, abduction, murders, ect..) are news because they happen infrequently. This failure to recognize the remoteness of these events contributes to a feeling of pessimism about the future. Finally people delude themselves into believing they can prevent all bad things from happening by simply taking the requisite precautions. Some precautions, like vaccines, are wise but others others are nothing more than false assurances. In short you can’t guard against everything, so you might as well go about your businesses. Fred retreats indoors when lightning is about. How did Fred die? CO2 poisoning. The point is being complete safety is impossible. We should teach children to be vigilant not fearful and despite what they see or read the odds of bad things happening are small, especially if they are vigilant. I don’t advocate throwing smart phones into the ocean. I think the best solution is to teach parents and children how to deal with all the information at their disposal. Or as my son would say, “we need to just chill.”

    • Indeed. We didn’t know of most catastrophes before instant communications and travel arrived.
      And the news media is a for-profit enterprise, so they seek to grab hold of their customers attention through shock, horror and non-stop reporting of whatever bad things they can find. It says something about the human condition that we prefer bad news to good news.

  9. @Farris I agree with your comments and would add that not only is there “more information more quickly available”, there is also more misinformation more quickly available. Sometimes I wonder if societies are becoming less able to absorb what is available in a critical manner.

  10. Fran says

    There are 2 good reasons why antivaxers are a social menace.

    1. Heard immunity is the only protection children who are immune suppressed have – eg, chemotherapy.

    2. Check this out: Long-term measles-induced immunomodulation increases overall childhood infectious disease mortality; Michael J. Mina,1,2,* C. Jessica E. Metcalf,1,3 Rik L. de Swart,4 A. D. M. E. Osterhaus,4 and Bryan T. Grenfell1,3
    Immune suppression after measles lasts at least 2-3 years, so that preventing the disease reduces morbidity and mortality from all other infections.

  11. John Christopher says

    Interesting. I would have thought Shellenberger would have got into the gun control debate. Would still like to hear his thoughts. Seems to me Progressive are fearful of all guns, and conservatives fear losing the basic right to own them. I have a friend who becomes outraged when they see someone openly carrying a sidearm. While I consider someone openly carrying somewhat off in this day in age, it seems to me that being in their presence make one considerably safer.

    I am also not surprised (but disappointed) at the vaccine comments here. To expect the average person to “do their research” leads only to more fear and misinformation.

  12. Kirk Gothier says

    Having spent endless evenings, in the far reaches of a vary rural County, discussing new development and technologies (i.e. Cellular Phone Towers, and yes I am that old), I found standard Risk Assessment comparisons to be invaluable in helping communities come to agreement about acceptable/non-acceptable risk.


    However, Step 1 in this challenging process was always coming to agreement, as a community, in making decisions based on the Scientific Method, rather than some other metric, which insures other species replace humans, ASAP!

  13. I note your willingness to admit when you are wrong. That is a pleasant and all too rare thing these days.

    However, I have some questions. You admit you fell for the fear based campaign against nuclear power. Same with overpopulation, one would imagine. The science behind both was crap. Yet you believed and went so far as to become an anti-nuclear activist. You also backed ‘environmental friendly’ solar and wind, which really aren’t all that environmental friendly.

    In other words you’ve not only backed wrong ideas, you became an activist to push those wrong ideas.

    Why should anyone trust your judgement on any scientific subject at all? The case for nuclear energy has been clear for decades. This isn’t something new. Simple research back when the anti-nuclear folks went nuts would have lead to the same conclusion you recently reached.

    Next, it is rather funny that you are trumpeting ‘Progressive parents are seeking to raise “free range kids” capable of exploring their neighborhoods and cities without their parents helicoptering around them.’ which is what most conservatives have been doing all along.

    Why pop the ‘progressive’ in there? It seems rather dishonest to point a problem caused by ‘progressives’ which conservatives* largely called out, then give props to the ‘progressives’ for realizing that they were wrong to begin with, while ignoring that the conservatives were right all along.

    Same thing with trigger warnings and safe spaces.

    I suspect that you are so wedded to your ‘progressive’ self-imposed title that it actually gets in your way. This is rather common on both sides these days, though the liberals/progressives are way more vocal about it presently.

    You ought to stop for a moment and ask, what do conservatives really want? You will probably find that their goals are close to yours. Then say to your self, well they were right about nuclear and they were right about free range kids, could they be right about other things as well?

  14. Jim Hopf says

    Minor nit. The caption on the picture of the power plant (in Greece) is wrong. Greece has no nuclear power plants. The picture is of the Agios Dimitrios Power Station, the largest power plant in Greece. It is fueled by lignite, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels; even worse than coal.


    The Greeks take pride in their strong anti-nuclear-power position, all the while using a source of power that is thousands of times more dangerous and harmful, not only to public health, but to the earth’s climate as well. Breathtaking ignorance and hypocrisy.

    Just to give some numbers, pollution from fossil fueled power plants (esp. coal and lignite) have caused on the order of 10 million deaths over the ~50 years nuclear power has been around. They are also one of the main causes of global warming. Over that same period, nuclear power (outside the old Soviet Union) has caused no deaths and has had no measurable public health impact. Pessimistic estimates of the (too small to measure) total eventual deaths from Fukushima (non-Soviet nuclear’s only significant release of pollution, ever) top out at ~100. That is, ~100,000 times fewer deaths than fossil generation.

    So, we have fossil plants that have caused over 100,000 times as many deaths as nuclear power over the last 50 years, and also cause global warming while nuclear does not, and we still can’t figure out which is better? And many people (Germany, Taiwan, now Korea, the list goes on) still essentially prefer fossil? Irrational psychology indeed. What an indictment of humanity.


      “Over that same period, nuclear power (outside the old Soviet Union) has caused no deaths and has had no measurable public health impact”. Have you researched fukushima?

      • Simon Dalley says

        If you are interested, thorough expert information can be found here:http://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/fukushima.html . Briefly, there was indeed not, nor is there expected to be, any measurable health harm from the radioactivity from the Fukushima accident.

        Apparent increases in thyroid abnormalities were wholly due to much-more-thorough assessments being done than before the accident, and represented no increase in actual morbidity.

        The panicky evacuations, however, did shorten the lives of many hundred old people who were wrenched from their nursing homes, when they would have been far better off sheltering in place.

        Acute radiophobia, further stoked by mendacious professional pseudo-experts such as Arnie Gunderson, opportunistic politicians, Greenpeace and FOEs of the Earth, has led to a pathologically danger-averse attitude that has in turn prevented the timely return of residents to their homes, with consequent increased stress, depression, suicide, and family breakup. Levels of radiation common in many parts of the world in which people happily live, work, and play, are declared to be deadly for a thousand years, simply because they arose from a man-made instead of a natural cause.

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