The anti-vaccine movement, cranks, and “pseudo-expertise”

Over the last week or so, I’ve been confronted full bore with cranks, staring down the barrel, if you will, of a crank shotgun, one barrel being the anti-vaccine movement in general (with J.B. Handley and his misogyny being the buckshot, so to speak) and the other being Suzanne Somers and her despicable cancer quackery. Indeed, over the last five years, I’ve subjected myself to some of the most outrageous bits of unreason, conspiracy mongering, and pseudoscience. Be it the anti-vaccine movement, quacks, 9/11 Truthers, Holocaust deniers, creationists, or any of a variety of other bits of pseudoscience, I’ve come to appreciate that what distinguishes believers in such nonsense seems to be, as Prometheus so aptly put it, the arrogance of ignorance. Even so, there seems to be more than that going on, and leave it to, of all things, an article in the L.A. Times by James Rainey entitled Childhood vaccines, autism and the dangers of group think. It’s an article looking at Amy Wallace’s excellent article for WIRED entitled An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All, which documented how the arrogance of ignorance has led the anti-vaccine movement to endanger public health, and the exceedingly (and typically) nasty reaction the anti-vaccine movement with which the anti-vaccine movement responded, particularly J.B. Handley’s misogyny.

There are two key passages in Rainey’s article that tell the tale, a tale that is no surprise to skeptics, in particular skeptical bloggers like my self:

“They will say, ‘Who do you think you are to tell me?’ or ‘Who does the government think it is to tell us what is best for public health?’ ” Wallace told me this week. “They say, ‘You can’t know my child like I know my child.’ ”

Wallace has run smack into an abiding, perhaps growing, phenomenon of the Internet Age: Citizens armed with information are sure they know better. Readers who brush up against expertise believe they have become experts. The common man rebels against the notion that anyone — not professionals, not the government and certainly not the media — speaks with special authority.

Where it stops, nobody knows. But already we see a wave of amateurs convinced they can write a pithier movie review, arrange a catchier song, even assess our planet’s shifting weather conditions, better than the professionals trained to do the job.


The rise of computer literacy, high-speed Internet connections, blogging and social networks has emboldened the common man to tell his own story and, sometimes, to disdain trappings like a university degree, professional training or corporate affiliation. The citizen activists often frame themselves as truth tellers fighting against an establishment that is hopelessly venal. No matter that the corruption, routinely claimed, is seldom supported by more than innuendo.

This is indeed the cult of the amateur, as the title of a book mentioned in the article goes. There has always been a strain in American culture that is deeply anti-intellectual and suspicious of experts. That is not always a bad thing. Experts are not always right, and “the best and the brightest” have at times led us horribly astray. However, in the process, our nation appears to have somehow devalued not only expertise, but science itself. Science is the “other.” It’s not something that “everyday people” do, or at least it’s not perceived that way, which is all the more sad because anyone with a reasonable level of intelligence should be able to understand the very basics of the scientific method. The same is true of critical thinking. Indeed, in many areas of of life, the “average Joe” is admirably skeptical. For example, many people are more than capable of evaluating the sales pitch of a car salesman or, as my wife and I had to do several months ago, the high pressure sales pitch of a roofing salesman. Yet, in other areas these same people are credulous marks for any conspiracy theory that comes around.

In the case of the anti-vaccine movement, what drives this arrogance of ignorance is an old-fashioned American distrust of authority (often good, but not always) combined with a democratic tradition in which every person is assumed to be equal. The problem is that equal under the law and possessing equal rights (which is he American ideal) does not mean equal abilities or knowledge. We as a people seem to conflate the two and assume all too often that, if Paul Offit can pontificate about vaccines, so can we, even though we don’t have any special expertise in the relevant sciences. Too many of us assume that several hours (or even much, much less) spent in front of a computer studying at the University of Google renders our understanding equal to that of scientists and experts who have spent their entire lives studying a problem. Celebrities are no different, either. Indeed, fueled by ego and surrounded by yes-men and other enablers, celebrities seem even more prone to the arrogance of ignorance, be they Bill Maher, Oprah Winfrey, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Billy Corgan, or Suzanne Somers. Worse, they have a much larger soapbox from which to spread their nonsense. But they’re not alone. Whenever I want to demonstrate what drives this attitude, I like to quote anti-vaccine loon J.B. Handley:

I’m not intellectually intimidated by any of these jokers. Their degrees mean zippo to me, because I knew plenty of knuckleheads in college who went on to be doctors, and they’re still knuckleheads (I also knew plenty of great, smart guys who went on to be doctors and they’re still great, smart guys).

I chose a different path and went into the business world. In the business world, having a degree from a great college or business school gets you your first job, and not much else. There are plenty of Harvard Business School grads who have bankrupted companies and gone to jail, and plenty of high school drop-outs who are multi-millionaires. Brains and street-smarts win, not degrees, arrogance, or entitlement.

Except that brains and street smarts count for nothing in science if they exist without an understanding of science.

From my perspective, the progress made on developing Internet may well be the single greatest development of the last 30 years. When the Internet was first developed, it was used primarily by educational, government, and defense institutions. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s when huge numbers of people started to have access to the Internet, and today in developed countries most people take Internet access for granted. Personally, I don’t know how I’d survive without it. It’s made, for example, looking up articles for my research and writing journal articles and grants a snap. However, there’s a down side, and that’s too much information, so much information that it makes it very easy for someone without the background knowledge to separate the wheat from the chaff to develop a sense of pseudo-expertise. In other words, they may pick up a lot of facts and be able to cite a lot of studies, but they do not know the scientific context behind them. Worse, they don’t know how to recognize good studies compared to bad studies or understand that critically examining the evidence against your beliefs is even more important than examining the evidence for them. The result all too often turns into an orgy of cherry picking and confirmation bias.

The result, when combined with someone like J.B. Handley, who thinks that expertise can be so easily dismissed, is the anti-vaccine movement, creationists, Holocaust deniers, 9/11 Truthers, and quacks.

The other driving force behind the proliferation of pseudo-expertise is a very human trait that we all share, namely the tendency to confuse correlation with causation. Once again, this is one of the first lessons in science, not to confuse correlation with causation, but those of us in science forget just how against human nature this is. We are creatures that value personal experience over statistics and science. One good anecdote trumps reams of evidence. This produces, for example, anthropogenic global warming denialists who justify their rejection of climate science by their observation that this summer was unusually mild in their area or the alternative medicine maven who swears by homeopathy because the symptoms of their self-limited condition got better after they tried it.

Moreover, let us not forget that, at the level of a single person, correlation sure can appear to be causation. As I pointed out a month ago, one example is heart attacks and the flu vaccine. More than 3,000 people have heart attacks each and every day, which means that by random chance alone there will be probably several people a day who have a heart attack within 24 hours of being vaccinated for the flu. To those people, it may appear all the world as though the vaccine caused the heart attack, when in reality it really was just coincidence. It’s not enough simply to observe an adverse event happening after something, say, vaccination. You have to show that there is an incidence of that adverse event significantly greater than what could be predicted by chance alone. The same applies to the claim that vaccines cause autism. If you have a child who regresses within a day or so of vaccination, it will appear all the world to you that the vaccine caused the regression. In that case, it is then very difficult even for highly educated parents to accept the results of science, namely that epidemiological studies do not find an elevated incidence of autism after vaccination.

Combine the all-too-human tendency to confuse correlation with causation with the anti-intellectual attitude of a J. B. Handley and the arrogance of ignorance that pseudoexpertise derived from studying at Google U. produces, and you have fanatical adherence to a crank movement. It all boils down to a basic human need for a perception of order in the universe. We need causes when bad things happen; we need explanations. “You were unlucky” or “it was just an unfortunate coincidence” are not answers to the question “Why?” that satisfy. Blaming something is, be it blaming vaccines for autism or constructing elaborate conspiracy theories to explain how 19 men with box cutters could hijack commercial airliners and cause the deaths of 3,000 Americans.

Becoming an expert in anything is very hard. It’s been estimated that in general it takes 10,000 hours of practice and study to become an expert in surgery, for example. There are no shortcuts. The Internet may seem like a shortcut that levels the playing field between experts and the great unwashed masses, but in reality it only gives the illusion of expertise or, as I’ve called it, pseudoexpertise. Similarly, in the past, the lay person just plain did not have direct access to medical studies. Obtaining such studies would require a trip to a medical school library, which may or may not be far away, prolonged searching through Index Medicus, piling journal upon journal on a cart, and then spending tons of change to copy the articles desired. Now, virtually any abstract can be accessed through PubMed, and articles reporting federally funded research are deposited in PubMed Central within a year of publication, where anyone can access it. While this open access to knowledge is appropriate, given that our tax dollars funded the research, it inadvertently fueled the rise of the pseudoexpert.

Finally, it’s not all bad. The very same forces that produced the anti-vaccine movement and fuel the panoply of cranks provide the weapons to combat them. For example, I started out blogging using a free service called Blogspot, and I would almost certainly still be on Blogspot or on one of the other free blogging platforms that have proliferated had ScienceBlogs not spotted me for the awesome blogging talent that I am and asked me to be assimilated into the collective. Should ScienceBlogs and I ever decide to part ways, I can always go back to that. It is that easy access to blogs and the web that cranks take advantage of to spread their message that provides scientists and skeptics the weapons to combat cranks. Unfortunately, it’s a lopsided battle, and not in our favor.