From vaccinations to fluoride to GMOs, one biologist argues that Portland needs to get back to the lab
When measles broke out in communities across the country this winter, many blamed the antivaccination movement. Likely presidential candidates expounded on families opting out of inoculations, and one antivaccine doctor became a celeb/pariah after describing his own child as “pure.” Personally, the uproar took me back a year or so, to a spring afternoon when my wife came home from work upset. She reported that a friend’s son had been exposed to whooping cough at school, by a teacher who had never received the Tdap booster.
I felt a lot of things in that moment: worry, anger, and bad-parent guilt. Our own daughter goes to a great school, but I’d never inquired whether the teachers had up-to-date pertussis boosters. I just assumed they would. But I soon learned that Oregon, unlike many other states, specifically prohibits employers—including school districts—from requiring vaccines. And, in general, Oregon has become a stronghold for the antivaccine crowd: last year, 7 percent of the state’s kindergarteners received “nonmedical” exemptions from one or more vaccines—the nation’s highest rate. The sentiment behind that number seems particularly strong in the state’s progressive political bastions. In Multnomah County, the kindergarten opt-out rate is 9 percent; in übercrunchy Ashland, health officials have estimated that 25 percent of schoolkids lack the chickenpox inoculation, available since 1995 and recommended by the federal government.
My own initial naïveté brought me face to face with another, bigger issue, one that had troubled me before: It’s not just vaccines. Oregon, and perhaps especially Portland, seems to have a peculiar problem with science.
In 2013, Portlanders voted overwhelmingly to remain one of America’s largest cities with unfluoridated water. As a trained scientist—a biologist, specifically—I found the result troubling. As a citizen, I found it terrifying. The campaign’s winning antifluoride side marshaled a strange coalition of left, right, and the Dandy Warhols’ keyboardist to crush the broad scientific consensus that fluoridating water improves public health. If we, as a community, don’t make these decisions—policy choices with significant public ramifications—rationally, based on an accepted set of verifiable facts, what do we base them on? Emotion? Ideology? Celebrity endorsements?
In my own work as a plant physiologist, I’ve done some research on genetically engineered trees designed to improve air quality. This is not a popular dinner-party conversation topic in Portland. While Oregonians narrowly defeated a statewide measure to require food labeling of genetically modified organisms last November, Multnomah County voted in favor (and, thus, in essence, against GMOs) by a margin of almost 75,000. In the heat of the campaign season, whenever I attempted to explain and defend GMOs, I was accused of being a shill for Big Biotech. (All my work on GMOs has been as a research volunteer.) The fact that good science clearly shows that genetic engineering can both improve the environment and help feed a growing population doesn’t seem to matter when opponents are already convinced it is evil.
This stubbornness has become the new normal. “In Oregon, we have no trouble believing the evidence about climate change,” says Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward, who is both a family physician and a Democratic state senator—she briefly pursued legislation to end “philosophical” opt-outs from vaccinations. “But we have all sorts of trouble believing the scientific evidence about fluoride and vaccination. I just don’t get it.” (When Steiner-Hayward spoke in favor of fluoridation, opponents insisted her position was motivated by a desire to “pay back” dentists who’d backed her campaign.)
Portland embraces alternative transportation, green buildings, and other renewable technologies. We leave our roads salt-free to protect salmon. We point with pride to our thriving tech industry. Portland State’s biology department, where I work, is bursting at the seams with eager students, while Oregon Health & Science University is famously campaigning to raise $1 billion to become the world’s preeminent cancer research facility. Fighting global warming is a cornerstone of city and state policy. But on certain issues, even many left-of-center Portlanders are as reluctant as oil-state Republicans to accept science that conflicts with their ideological leanings.
Maybe this tendency is a rogue byproduct of our contrary nature. For decades, our city has attracted people (like me) who are skeptical of many mainstream politics and ideas. The countercultural disposition of Portlanders, in my opinion, is usually a very healthy thing. But it also means some can see conspiracy where it doesn’t actually exist.
As a civic culture, Portland is deliberately unique. We work to keep our city weird, and questioning the assumptions of American society is part of our DNA. But we also have to make important individual and community choices, with huge stakes. When we make those choices—whether to set public-health standards for the people who teach our kids or regulations for the food we eat—we should accept evidence and solid research. On every issue, not just our pet issues, we should embrace science. Maybe we should just think of it as the countercultural thing to do.