The “anti-vax” crowd is acting like a herd and is thus compromising our herd immunity. Is the problem that people have become worse at evaluating risk in the past 60 years, or that the general media has lost pretty much all sense of responsibility?

Polio Vaccine Found

David Megginson April 16, 2015 06:56

I think the problem is that “trust me, I’m a scientist” has lost some of its impact over the past decades. The scientists who rented themselves out to the infant-formula, tobacco, petroleum, etc industries to provide PR material have diluted the brand.

That’s probably a good thing, even if it has created a crack that dangerous people like the anti-vaxxers can slip through. Our next challenge (as a society) is to learn to evaluate claims based on actual evidence, rather than simply the social authority of middle-aged men in white labcoats.

Michael K Johnson April 16, 2015 08:33

The way we, as a society, evaluate claims based on evidence is to trust those with the necessary expertise to evaluate the evidence meaningfully. That’s why dereliction of this duty is so damaging regardless of the motivation; laziness or venality aren’t distinguishable in the outcome.

Daniel Berrange April 16, 2015 08:34

Vaccination has been so effective that very few people have any first hand experience of the awful consequences of the various diseases we used to suffer under, so they have lost all perspective about how important the vax program was :-(

Michael K Johnson April 16, 2015 08:53

I note that “science proves” illustrates the problem. Science is indeed how we test the relative quality of explanations of physical phenomena, but “prove” has lost that primary meaning in normal use and through an error of metonymy augmented by longing has come to mean something we clearly desire but so rarely can attain: demonstration of absolute truth.

To me, this means that one of the clearest duties of the scientist as a member of society is to clearly communicate not only the results of research but also its limitations.

Stephen John Smoogen April 16, 2015 11:26

There is a bit of a cult of wealth in the anit-vaccination crowd.

I do not say wealth is everything causing it, but most people I run into who are in the anti-vaccine crowd are into other forms of ostentatious behaviour. 

 It is a form of wealth show-off in that you are wealthy enough not to have to do X. These fads have been “I am so wealthy I don’t have to send my kid to school”, “I am so wealthy that I have a huge house.” etc etc. The perverse part is that we have a strong tendency to not like people saying they are too wealthy so it is socially acceptable to say “I don’t do vaccines because they cause autism”, “I don’t send my kids to schools because they are horrible”, “I don’t believe in climate change because its unproven.”, “I need a larger house because …” ok I don’t have one for that one. :).

Joseph Pingenot April 16, 2015 11:31

“The way we, as a society, evaluate claims based on evidence is to trust those with the necessary expertise to evaluate the evidence meaningfully.”  No, no, no.  The way you evaluate claims based on evidence is to evaluate the claims based on the evidence.  That’s it, end of story.

Society is comprised of individuals, and is therefore not a monolithic entity.  It cannot evaluate anything.  We can as an ensemble of individuals determine to take actions or not take actions based upon rules (generally based in the US using some function of the consensus of the individuals).   And if we’re talking about science, the freedom to reach one’s own conclusions and dissent from others is absolutely vital.

Michael K Johnson April 16, 2015 12:32

+Joseph Pingenot Glad to hear that you are taking from Thomas Young the title of The Last Polymath. Let me know how it works out for you…

Joseph Pingenot April 16, 2015 12:55

So far it’s going well. Thanks for asking!

Michael K Johnson April 16, 2015 16:14

When I responded, G+ showed me only through “end of story”. I’m not sure where your assertions about freedom come from. My assertion here is not about law or freedom but that we all in the end cannot understand everything, and have to choose which things to have primary expertise in and which to trust others. The implication that I’m proposing to limit freedom is a straw man.

David Megginson April 16, 2015 18:01

Authority is a pretty dangerous basis for action, and enough scientists have been betraying that trust for long enough that we can’t look at it as merely an aberration: scientific authority stood behind eugenics in the 1920s & 30s, tobacco companies in the 1940s, radiation and LSD experiments on humans in the 1950s, the recommendation for mothers to stop breastfeeding and use formula in the 1960s (not to mention Thalidomide for morning sickness), etc.  

As +Joseph Pingenot implied, if we simply fetishise scientists into the new priesthood (whatever they say must be the truth), then we’re in deep trouble. Scientists are people, and authority is dangerous. I was born about a year too late to have risked being a Thalidomide baby, but I’m still glad that my mother refused to take any non-essential medication during pregnancy (even aspirin), and also ignored the doctors’ advice and breastfed all of her kids.  

Just to be clear, I’m also glad that she vaccinated all of us (without a moment’s hesitation) — she had no doubts about the importance of that, but she wasn’t so interested in the scientific lifestyle recommendations about lactation, morning sickness, etc. that were all the rage 50 years ago.

Michael K Johnson April 16, 2015 18:12

I’m clearly not communicating here. I’m not arguing that we should just trust scientists. I’m saying that authority is the mechanism of distributed trust, irrespective of whether any particular trust is warranted. Additionally, we have long since passed the time when any one person can be considered to be expert in all common areas of human knowledge.

To insist that no one ever trust authority is unreasonable. Verify where you can. Expose what you know to be wrong. But you are more likely to succeed in changing things if you start from how people actually work (trust is clearly built in) than insist that we deprecate trust and start over with some newly invented social mechanism for doing the same thing.

David Megginson April 16, 2015 19:28

I would trust authority blindly if I were in a smoke-filled room and someone in firefighting gear yelled “follow me out THIS WAY!”

Otherwise, I prefer negotiation and informed consent to authority — I decide how much to trust each source of information not based on the power it wields, but based on its past and current performance, and its relevance to what I do. Lawmakers say “don’t drive over 100 km/h on the highway”, but I’ll still decide to do 120 km/h on a dry, straight road. Health Canada says “don’t eat this food — we’re recalling it for salmonella”, and I go along, because they have a pretty good track record and no obvious personal conflicts of interest.

“Science” as an institution is too big and varied to grant that kind of trust to, though I have chosen to grant my trust to specific organisations, such as my Ministry of Health, the Centre for Disease Control, and the WHO.

Michael K Johnson April 16, 2015 20:54


I’m not sure where “blindly” came in. I sure wasn’t suggesting it. Your examples of bad action by scientists in the past are all valid and illustrate the point I was trying to make…

By being often right and not obviously conflicted, Health Canada has earned your trust; you aren’t doing your own salmonella tests I suspect. Yet they could lose your trust by bad action in the future (we hope not).

Again, I’m not sure whether we’re actually communicating here. From years of conversation I doubt we substantially disagree on this point. I think I’m just not able to be clear and concise regarding the point I’m trying to make and should just shut up. :-)

David Megginson April 17, 2015 09:28

I don’t think we’re too far off, Michael: we’re both talking about the necessity of (tentatively) trusting information from some sources, since it’s impossible to verify everything personally.

The difference, I think, is that you believe that, while there are individual aberrations (for which we have to be vigilant), all other things being the same, someone with scientific qualifications should be more trustworthy on scientific matters than someone without.

I believe that the incentives for people with scientific qualifications to stray (status, need for funding, hobby horse theories, etc.) are strong enough to cancel out their extra knowledge, so that all other things being the same, someone with scientific qualifications is no more trustworthy on scientific matters than someone without.

As a result, I put my trust not in qualifications but in institutions. I am more likely to trust a scientist from the Centre for Disease Control not because she’s a scientist, but because she’s speaking on behalf of the CDC.

I apply the same rule to myself. I have a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies; you don’t (AFAIK). However, I would never assume that anything I saw about the middle ages is more accurate than anything you say simply because of my degrees. If I’m citing results from a major peer-reviewed research project, then it’s the project (and the wide review) that should earn trust, not the letters after my name.

Michael K Johnson April 18, 2015 10:24

Thanks! I concur, we’re quite close. I should clarify that when I was speaking of the obligations of scientists to respect the societal obligations inherent in the trust they are naturally given, I was not implying some mirroring obligation on the part of others to trust them blindly.

I was, however, probably insufficiently considering perverse incentives.

That said, if you say something about the middle ages that disagrees with my current understanding, and I’m not sufficiently interested to chase down the difference myself, at the very least I wil count that as evidence that my understanding is suspect and be less sure of myself. You might consider that respect for the letters after your name as trusting the institution that granted you the degree, including their examination process, which is certainly a form of peer review of your knowledge of the field. ☺

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