More arrogance of ignorance in the antivaccine movement

After a digression yesterday, it’s time to get back to business. Don’t get me wrong. Yesterday’s post was business. It was definitely something important (to me) that needed to be said, in my not-so-humble pseudonymous opinion. It just wasn’t the usual business I engage in on this blog.

I’ve often referred to what I (and others) refer to as the “arrogance of ignorance.” This particular not-so-desirable trait consists basically of people without any special training in a field or who are otherwise unqualified in a field coming to believe that they understand the field better than experts who have devoted their lives to studying it. Just search for the term “arrogance of ignorance” on this blog, and you will find that many are the cranks to whom I’ve applied it, including (most prominently) antivaccinationists, various cancer quacks, and, although not as often anymore, evolution denialists, often also known as creationists. The arrogance of ignorance derives from a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University, which occurs when incompetent and unknowledgeable people not only perform a task poorly but lack sufficient competence to realize that they are incompetent. The result is that not only believe that they are competent, but that they are much more competent than they really are, even experts. I like the way RationalWiki describes such people: They’re too stupid to realize they’re stupid.

Some view the Dunning-Kruger effect as the manifestation of the old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, meaning that once people gain a little knowledge about a topic they can easily come to believe they are experts. I also like to apply the term “arrogance of ignorance” to them, because it fits. Ironically, the inverse also applies. Experts and competent people frequently underestimate their ability compared to others. They understand their topic of expertise or are skilled at a task, skilled enough to negatively analyze their every mistake and to be acutely aware of every hole in their knowledge. I even see this in myself sometimes, when, even though I am now a mid-career surgeon entering the last half of my career and thus highly experienced, I sometimes wonder if I’m actually any good, particularly after a difficult case. Don’t even get me started about how I’m constantly running into scientists who are more knowledgeable and clever than I am.

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion, based on a lot of personal experience and some evidence, that it is virtually a prerequisite to becoming a crank that the crank be endowed with huge quantities of Dunning-Kruger overconfidence in his own knowledge and abilities. It’s not just about science, either. It’s any field where expertise is valued. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across an article by Tom Nichols entitled The Death of Expertise. No, the article doesn’t imply that expertise doesn’t exist any more. Certainly it does. It has to in such a complex society with sophisticated technology, which is based oneven more sophisticates science. Rather, what Nichols argues is that society no longer values expertise. In a world of the Dunning-Kruger deluded, everyone thinks that they are an expert, which leads to a situation like this:

Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy.

But democracy, as I wrote in an essay about C.S. Lewis and the Snowden affair, denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense.

I blame the University of Google. Not entirely, of course, but it’s definitely a major contributor. As awesome and useful a tool the Google search engine is, its great value is simultaneously its most pernicious influence. It allows anyone to search for information about anything. The same tool that allows a child to search for information for a school report or a scientist to search for information to help his research also makes it easy for Jenny McCarthy to search for articles confirming her belief that vaccines cause autism. As Nichols aptly puts it:

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas.

After acknowledging that experts don’t always get it right, Nichols continues:

But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.

Unfortunately, as I was also reminded this week, the antivaccine movement is based on the arrogance of ignorance that derives from the Dunning-Kruger effect. One need look no further than to a particular group of antivaccine mothers whose name is hilarious if you know about the Dunning-Kruger effect. I’m referring, of course, to the inaptly named The Thinking Moms’ Revolution. Note the implication. They view themselves as the enlightened ones, mothers who have knowledge that others don’t, mothers who think where others don’t. They might as well call themselves something like The Dunning-Kruger Moms, as it’s a way more appropriate name for them. Personally, I frequently refer to them as The (Not-So)-Thinking Moms’ Revolution.

The “Thinking” Moms’ entire message is that you—yes, you!—are a sheeple and are being lied to by the government, the medical profession, and science. They, however, proclaim themselves to have transcended that, to have knowledge that the unenlightened don’t have, knowledge that they will impart to you if you will only open your eyes and believe them. It’s all very much like a religion, very cult-like. Of course, in a way they create their own knowledge. The studies they cite are often performed by believers looking not for deeper understanding but rather evidence to buttress their pre-existing beliefs. More importantly, in their world view they face an unending battle to battle conspiracy vast and hostile and need converts to join the fray. That’s why, for example, BK writes what she calls An Open Letter to My Facebook Friends, in order to explain to them why she annoys them with her antivaccine drivel. After professing being tired of the issue herself (the cliche of the weary warrior, tired of battle, comes to mind) and, like any martyr for her cause, expressing a wish that she could post pictures of cute puppies or kittens and keep her Facebook wall “light and pleasant and a fun ‘place’ to hang out,” BK asserts without evidence that the WORLD’s children are getting sicker. Why is that? Well, leaving aside the fact that it’s highly arguable whether the world’s children really are getting sicker, full of autoimmune diseases, environmental allergies, life-threatening food allergies, ADHD, seizure disorders, asthma, cancer, bipolar disorder, and various gastrointestinal issues and bowel diseases, to BK it obviously has to be the vaccines:

I know that the media tells you that vaccines are completely safe, and that you want to t1larg.vaccine.heart.attackbelieve them. I know that vaccines make people feel safe and protected. I know that thinking that the media, the FDA, and the CDC might be lying to you is a very scary idea. We as humans have this desire to believe that our government is taking care of us, and have all of our best interests at heart. It makes us feel safe. We want to trust those who are in charge. We NEED to trust them.

But we are being lied to.

I do so love straw men like the claim that vaccine advocates believe that vaccines are completely safe. I challenge BK to find such an advocate making such an argument. The real argument, is, of course, that vaccines are incredibly safe and that the vast benefits of vaccines far outweigh the minuscule risk from them. Much of the rest of BK’s argument consists of standard antivaccine tropes and false equivalences. Full of Dunning-Kruger is her assertion that “for every ‘study’ that ‘proves’ vaccines are safe, there are more studies that prove that they are not safe.” Regular readers of this blog know that this is nonsense, because the studies that demonstrate vaccine safety are generally large, well-designed epidemiological studies, and the “studies” that “prove” (to steal BK’s scare quotes) that vaccines are not safe tend to be by shoddy and/or ideologically-driven studies cranks like Andrew Wakefield, Mark and David Geier, and the like. They are not equivalent to the mountains of science demonstrating that vaccines are safe and effective.

Of course, anyone who asserts this is an enemy to be destroyed. Remember how I mentioned yesterday that pseudonyms drive antivaccinationists crazy? The reason is that antivaccinationists view the world in “us versus them” terms. Those who criticize them and oppose their nonsense are the enemy, to be attacked, because, in all their Dunning-Kruger cultish confidence, antivaccinationists know their enemies are wrong and they are right. Meanwhile, they are fighting pure evil! They’re fighting to save the children! It’s very similar to how fans of Stanislaw Burzynski believe they are fighting to save children from death from deadly brain tumors. Certainly the language used to describe autism, even mild autism, by antivaccinationists certainly uses the same sort of apocalyptic terms that fans of Stanislaw Burzynski use. Moreover, the enemies are in a vast conspiracy. In fact, since I stopped paying a lot of attention to Jake Crosby, I haven’t seen a conspiracy post as long and detailed, not to mention as full of crazy, as one that appeared on The Thinking Mom’s Revolution two days ago. Written by Cindy Waeltermann and ending with a promise of “more to come” (oh, goody!), the post is entitled The Ties That Bind, in which she constructs a doozy of a conspiracy theory, in which all opposition to the idea that vaccines cause autism must be the result of a pharmaceutical company conspiracy of massive proportions, all designed to protect vaccine profits:

Katie Couric, a somewhat respected journalist, recently did a show about the dangers of human papillomavirus (“HPV”) vaccines. I’m not a big fan of vaccines, and I know how anything that portrays today’s immunization program in a bad light is vehemently attacked by members of the pharmaceutical industry and their paid shills. To see one of America’s leading news personalities actually tell the truth was refreshing. It piqued my interest so much that I actually watched it. The stories that the women on Couric’s show told were chilling. Much to my surprise , the pharmaceutical industry went for Couric’s throat after the program aired. After all, vaccines are a multi‐billion dollar industry with a lot to lose. And we know how they hate to lose money. Instead of actually investigating or looking into parents’ claims, they reacted like a pack of feral coyotes presented with a dead Deer. (No sarcasm or anything on the choice of word “deer.” I’m sure some of you will understand that one.) Couric’s Facebook page was littered with posts from people who advocate compliance with the current vaccine schedule who claimed to have absolutely no ties to, or payments from, the pharmaceutical industry. Included among them were Dorit Reiss and several other people from the organization Voices for Vaccines.

It needs to be emphasized again that Katie Couric’s segment dealing with HPV vaccines was riddled with misinformation and highly biased towards antivaccine pseudoscience, which is why the antivaccine movement liked it so much. The rest of Waeltermann’s post is a bravura demonstration of addle-brained conspiracy mongering. It has all the elements and more: Insinuation that enemies (such as Dorit Reiss) must be paid to post on blogs, Twitter, and in comment threads? Check. (In Reiss’s case, Waeltermann explicitly says that she thinks Reiss is paid because she’s so prolific.) Attempts to link groups promoting science-based information on vaccines to big pharma? Double check. Insinuations of conflicts of interest, whether existent or nonexistent, using Paul Offit, to them the Dark Lord of Vaccination, as an example? Triple check. Perhaps the most amusing bit of this conspiratorial tripe is Waeltermann’s lack of knowledge about government funding that leads her to write howlers like:

As Waldman points out, Reiss’s employer recently collaborated in a joint endeavor of Kaiser Permanente, U. C. San Francisco and U. C. Hastings College of Law, which was funded by The National Human Genome Research Institute – a GOVERNMENT ORGANZATION – which provided $778,000. The new endeavor benefits Reiss’s employer as it provides a new student study center. The headline of the University of California Press Release says it all: “New Center Explores Ethical, Legal, Social Implications of Genomics in Health Care: Center is Multidisciplinary Effort of UCSF, Kaiser Permanente, U.C. Hastings College of Law” – which is in line with the classes Ms. Reiss teaches. I’d say that’s benefiting from a government grant, indirectly if not directly ‐‐ it’s hard to say without taking a look at U. C. Hastings’ payroll for Ms. Reiss.

I do so love the way Waeltermann capitalizes “GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION.” If you want to emphasize your point in a way that confirms that you are a loon, that’s an awesome way to do it.

Here’s a hint. Well, several hints. First, believe it or not, for this sort of thing $778,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if it was used to provide a new student study center, and particularly not for a three year project. If you look at the website for the Center for Transdisciplinary ELSI Research in Translational Genomics (CT2G), it’s all very benign and has nothing to do with vaccines. It isn’t stated how much UCSF and UC Hastings contributed to the effort, but even so for a center like this, and even if they each contributed as much as the government, a little over $2.3 million over three years would not be out of line for the budget of such a center. Waeltermann’s whole insinuation is ludicrous in the extreme, so much so that I’m actually embarrassed for her, not that antivaccine activists tend to have any shame. The power of Dunning-Kruger protects her from that. She even quotes Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s smear of Paul Offit as a “biostitute” and repeats the antivaccine movement’s insulting nickname for him, Dr. PrOffit.

There have been a lot of other powerfully dumb examples of Dunning-Kruger in action on the part of the antivaccine movement that I don’t have time to write about now. Maybe later. I’m referring to a three part post by Bill Welsh on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism in which he posits a new hypothesis to explain regressive autism involving a microorganism, Mycoplasma fermentans, and, of course, vaccines. There’s a post up by Teresa Conrick linking another microorganism set of infections to autism. It’s as though they draw hypotheses out of a hat. In fact, if anyone really wants to see a new quackfest that will challenge the Autism One Quackfest for displaying the arrogance of ignorance, you might check out the Give Autism A Chance Summit.

However, when Dunning-Kruger rules, prior plausibility matters not at all, nor does science, except inasmuch as it can be twisted to support a crank’s agenda. I applaud “The Thinking Moms’ Revolution” for such over-the-top examples of exactly what I’ve been writing about for so long.