People who don’t know any better like to put people into categories. Usually, the categories are binary, with only two options. Worse yet, the categories are on opposite ends of a spectrum. There are heroes and villains, and nothing in between. This is how I feel that the most outspoken anti-vaccine activists see people who support the proper (and necessary) use of vaccines in particular, and evidence-based medicine in general. To them, we are villains.

There are many times when I am tempted to put them in categories as well, but I’m a little less prone to act and think irrationally than many of them are. I certainly don’t see “monsters under the bed,” to quote another blogger. I see misguided, fearful people who have fallen for an idea when no other answer seems plausible to them.

Take, for example, the unrelenting defense of two women who recently (allegedly, though they pretty much confessed to doing it but they’re yet to be convicted) killed an autistic child. One of the women is the child’s mother. The other is his caretaker. They (allegedly) killed him in a manner most foul, and there are anti-vaccine elements that are trying to defend those two women by stating that it was the lack of help in dealing with the child’s atypical behavior that drove them to do what they (allegedly) did. (And, trust me, what they [allegedly] did was horrible.) To some people, these women are victims and heroes. They’re heroes for putting up with a system that, according to them, would not help them.

You read that right. They’re heroes for (yeah, I know, allegedly) slaughtering a child.

Yet I’m not so quick to put those two women into the villain category. Heck, I won’t even put the anti-vaccine organization into the villain category, even though that organization is trying to push a “reality show” about the women. (They’re apparently looking to profit from that tragedy under the guise of “telling the truth.”) This is because it is hard for me to look at one factor and make a judgment on a person based on that. Like every good scientist, I need the whole story.

Some people see this as a sign of weakness. For example, when I read about a young person killing someone to rob them to buy drugs, I don’t see the alleged killer as a monster. The killer may very well be a victim of the environment around them. That environment may be the result of a set of circumstances going back decades or even centuries. Could they have used better judgment and not done what they did? Sure, but I’m not in their shoes, so I don’t know about their executive and decision-making functions. In short, problems are multi-faceted, complex, and you’ll be hard pressed to categorize a person as anything, really.

I’m halfway done with a course on genetic epidemiology. One thing that the professor keeps stressing is that genes are not the answer to all ailments. Sure, there are some genetic conditions that dictate that you will be sick and even die. But even those conditions have an environmental and social component to them. Things as deadly as Tay-Sachs, which is inevitably deadly, still have other components to them that determine how long the child will live (and even if the child will be born, based on the parents willingness to be tested and how they receive the results).

And that’s the thing about humans; we’re incredibly complex. I am the result of more than three decades of genes, two cultures, about ten sub-cultures (from the cities I’ve lived in), hundreds of personal relationships, a marriage, several traumatic experiences, two parents, four grandparents, etcetera. Ask anyone. I’m incredibly complex. When you think you have me figured out, I manage to come up with something that will make you (and/or my wife) shake your head and ask, “Who are you?”

Same goes for the people we think are villains. I’d like nothing more than to say that people like Andrew Wakefield, who committed fraud in trying to link autism with vaccines and undoubtedly hurt vaccination, is a villain. I’d be deceiving myself if I just said he was a villain. God only knows why he did what he did, or why he continues to crusade against vaccines. Maybe it’s personal. Maybe he had a bad experience with a vaccine as a child. Who knows? (Well, he knows. But he’ll never tell.)

Still, I’m having a heck of a time thinking that the mother and caretaker of that child should not be villains. It’s kind of an internal struggle within me and something that I’ve given a lot of thought to since I heard of that case. I mean, seriously, who kills their own child?

[do action=”credit”]Featured image credit: JD Hancock / Foter / CC BY[/do]