A new poll from YouGov reports 21 percent of Millennials (defined as under 30) believe vaccines cause autism.
At first glance, this might seem like an isolated case of bad information taking root in an undereducated or underinformed population, but it strikes me as another instance of something more prevalent in our generation: an ongoing search for "truth" outside of traditional institutions.
Second, we can probably chalk some of this up to "youth" and "inexperience" and the idea that most Millennials probably aren't thinking about the repercussions for vaccines at all until they are parents and forced to personally make the choice.
We can also blame the usual suspects, like mainstream news, which have run with these stories and given the Jenny McCarthys of the world a platform to espouse their propaganda.
But, another intriguing aspect of this YouGov poll is Millennials were the most in favor of having parents, not the government, decide to administer vaccines.
Almost half of the Millennials polled — 43 percent — were against mandatory vaccinations, outnumbering the 42 percent who support the idea. This shouldn't be that surprising, given that Millennials notably distrust, or are at the least not confident in, established institutions.
A possible interpretation of this is that it's a byproduct of the information age in which we live. Through communication technology and the transmission of news, information and ideas have been radically democratized in a very short amount of time.
More blatantly, the suspicion of institutions can be seen as a direct response to growing up in the Fail Decade (as Chris Hayes puts it).
This is all part of a larger phenomenon in American culture today where the motivations of experts are questioned, nullifying not just the results of research, but the authority of the institutions that present these findings.
In the case of anti-vaxxers, personal anecdotes and skepticism are put on an even playing field with scientific experts. Perhaps not unrelated, Millennials are the most likely to accept astrology as "scientific."
Sometimes, this fundamental cynicism even manifests as a grand conspiracy of a secret elite hell-bent on controlling some aspect of your daily life. Famously (or infamously), this "logic" has applied to global warming and given cover to blatantly ignorant and anti-intellectual arguments against scientific reality.
But, why? Why are Millennials specifically susceptible to this phenomenon? And, bringing us back to the question of vaccines, why are Millennials (of any political disposition) so willing to believe anecdotes and celebrities instead of scientific research?
A functionalist approach to this question makes clear there are at least four options: The narrative validates cultural norms; the narrative educates society about itself; the narrative provides a form of social control; the narrative serves as escapism or entertainment.
If we subscribe to the notion that Millennials are disinclined to trust institutions, both the preference for parental choice and the large minority of "anti-vaxxers" makes sense; you can trust your friends and family, but you can't trust the government or big corporations.
Indeed, the very idea of having hallowed "experts" with specialized knowledge is seemingly outdated in a world where everyone is exposed to the "same" information at the same time.
The question then becomes what these so-called experts' agendas are. And, like The Brain, these experts are usually only interested in one thing: taking over the world.
My skepticism of the validity of Millennial cynicism aside, sometimes it does seem like the world operates in some conspiratorial ways. Whether it's questioning whether the CIA killed Kennedy, or George W. Bush invaded Iraq for oil, a lot of our formal culture leaves us, laymen, wondering what just actually happened.
Often, we feel powerless against the world around us, hyper-connected with each other, but ultimately ineffective against the boogeyman of choice.
In many ways, it's simply escapism to decry institutional authority or believe in these grand conspiracy theories. It's easier to make sense of this schizophrenic culture by imposing a narrative on top of it, assuring us all it's part of a greater plan.
Maybe it's comforting to know there is an order to all of this, even if that order is evil.
Believing in these theories is also like a cultural placebo. By acknowledging a conspiracy exists, it gives us someone or something to blame and work against. Moreover, it gives the individual a sense of power in the process.
That's the ultimate answer, I think: Believing in conspiracy theories is empowering. Millennials have spent the bulk of their adult lives suffering near-daily admonitions for their laziness, selfishness and worthlessness from pundits near and far.
Despite countless economic and social successes, Millennials are still the butt of the older generations' jokes. All of this leads to a craving for cultural empowerment, the way Gen-X still struggles to find its voice after decades of the Boomer culture's supremacy.
So, whether it's a distrust in vaccinations or a belief in the Illuminati, Millennials who buy into these larger narratives give themselves the opportunity to access all of the conflicting cultural stations in which they live.
Unfortunately, in doing so, we're potentially sabotaging our own futures by indulging in every impulse to negotiate the truth for ourselves.
Think for yourself. Question authority. But first, vaccinate your kids.