Narratives of Certainty

I want to share my reflections upon your recent editorial “The Contest” in the March issue of Reed Magazine. I found it amazing that in the same short piece of writing you could both ask people to “interrogate the authority of sources, weigh the evidence and reach their own conclusion,” and call out folks you disagree with as either lunatics or fanatics.

I want to offer a suggestion to you, and to those that read your editorial and felt a sense of rightness swell up in their bellies. First off, you made it very hard for me to trust that you have spent time trying to understand those you characterize as lunatics and fanatics. Further, you draw no distinction between the institutional power structures that move ideas through society and the very human people all over the U.S. negatively influenced by ideology and what I call “narratives of certainty.”

I am struck that a smart person like you would be so undisciplined as to lump in an unwillingness to accept the dominant narrative of vaccine safety put forth by the CDC with a refusal to accept the data behind climate change. The vaccine issue is an absolutely perfect space for folks like you to sort through competing claims, interrogate the authority of sources, and reach your own conclusions—instead of name calling the thousands upon thousands of families questioning the sanity of a vaccine schedule in the United States that called for 5 total doses in 1962 versus 72 total doses today. And the vaccine issue is but one of many that deserve the intellectual discipline you demand.

At the end of the day, if we are going to encourage people, as you do at the end of your piece, to go to unfamiliar places, then we better back up that request with demonstration. There is one driving question here—are you actively building and testing viable alternatives, or are you standing in ideology and the cult of rightness?

The requirement today is to see—outside of right or left ideology—your real opponent, to build new structures, and to create the economic ecosystems of the future that are capable of building civic goods at a scale that serves people and planet. That is what we are doing with our company (Exile) and there are many like us around the globe. 

Andrew Markell ’94

Portland, Oregon

Editor's Note: What I actually wrote was: “Conspiracy theories that were once the domain of lunatics flourish on the internet like mushrooms in a woodpile.” For examples, just google chemtrails, hollow earth, or (tragically) the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I also referred to “partisan fanatics who insist that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism and that global warming is a liberal fiction.” I’m sorry for the pejorative terminology, but both assertions fly in the face of scientific evidence. As you probably know, the panic over MMR and autism was set off in 1997 by a study of 12 patients by British surgeon Andrew Wakefield. A subsequent investigation concluded that Wakefield “chiseled” his data, relied on false medical histories, and was paid thousands of dollars by lawyers intending to sue vaccine makers. The journal retracted the article. Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. More important, several major studies have found no link—I repeat, no link—between vaccines and autism. If you have evidence to the contrary, bring it on! I agree that we need to rise above ideology.