On February 7th, 2019, Eula Biss gave a lecture entitled “Truth, Lies, and True Lies.” Biss is the author of On Immunity: An Inoculation, which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review and which navigates the vaccine debate through the perspective of a mother looking to do what is best for her son. Biss combines scientific research and personal experience to explore why some people — including her own friends and acquaintances — oppose vaccines.
Biss’ lecture focused largely on the contents of her book. Admitting that as a white, affluent, educated woman in the suburbs, she was part of a demographic that is likely to not think vaccines are necessary for their children, Biss recounted the moment when her son’s pediatrician informed her that a certain vaccine wasn’t necessary for “wasn’t for people like you.” Biss told the audience that she felt relieved that her son didn’t have to get a shot, and that her relief clouded in that moment her ability to wonder why her doctor had, upon looking at her, decided that she wasn’t a specific type of person.
Biss became fascinated with how the basis for the anti-vaccine argument is founded on lies and misinformation. She was particularly interested in “true lies,” or truths that are taken out of necessary context and used to support an argument. Biss said that, “Lies work on us because we want to believe them,” arguing that when we are presented with a true lie that happens to support our own previously held convictions, we are likely to accept the true lie as a full truth without doing any sort of research or critical thinking about the information we are presented with. Biss said this phenomenon is prevalent in the vaccine debate as well as in mainstream media. For example, she said that journalism in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina largely portrayed Black people in a negative light, which constituted a sort of “lying in the guise of truth.”
In writing On Immunity, Biss said, she was able to conduct a meaningful search for truth on a subject often crowded by half-truths and misinformation. She exhorted the importance of taking great care with the information we are presented with, so that we can conduct our lives in accordance with truth.