I usually don’t respond to many comments on my blog, preferring instead to encourage conversation between readers. I also don’t typically close comments on any of my pieces, so conversations and reactions continue for a long time. Sometimes that takes the discussion in an interesting direction. I think that a few recent comments on my “Dear parents…” piece are worth highlighting, as they provide an excellent window into an ongoing discussion of a very common anti-vaccine argument.
Anti-vaccine activists have a problem with medical expertise. They prefer to rely on their own intuition, but it’s hard to measure that gut feeling up against an actual medical degree (much less the experience and knowledge that comes with it). There’s a reason hospitals hire doctors out of medical schools rather than the University of Google.
Anti-vaxxers need to defuse the expertise of real medical practitioners. Simultaneously, they have to grapple with the issue of culpability: if vaccines are harmful, and physicians know about it, they must be acting with deliberate malice to prescribe them to children. But what is their motive? And why would any physician, knowing the dangers, vaccinate his or her own children?
One of the ways the anti-vaxxers maneuver around this problem is by claiming that physicians don’t actually know (or accept) the dangers of vaccines. It’s only those sinister vaccine manufactures and their “shills”, driven solely by profit motives who are fully aware of the dangers (this argument still doesn’t account for why they vaccinate themselves and their children, but anti-vaxxers tend to ignore this problem). According to this line of thinking:
“those people you mention didn’t study the effects on the neurological system, the effects on the kidneys, etc. They’ve only studied a small piece of the puzzle. A very small piece. Ask any primary care physician or family doctor how much time they’ve spent on learning all the ins and outs of vaccines and how they work. It’s a frighteningly small amount of time.”
–A Concerned Mom (extract from comment on November 16, 2014)
To someone who’s actually gone through medical school or graduate school (or knows someone who has), it’s obvious why this is wrong. But if you’re not familiar with the kind of rigorous, even punishing training that physicians receive, it’s harder to see the difference between a serious education and self-study. And for someone who’s emotionally invested in an issue and only has that self-study to justify their position, it’s tempting to put that knowledge on a pedestal and assume it’s as good as, or even better than, traditional schooling and experience. So Concerned Mom’s argument would make a lot of sense, especially to someone who needs to believe that the doctors who disagree with their position somehow don’t know what they’re talking about.
That’s why I was very appreciative of a comment in response to A Concerned Mom, which I highlighted on the Violent Metaphors Facebook page a few days later. (That’s where I post daily, diverse stories about science and science literacy issues. Check it out!). At a reader’s suggestion, I want to highlight it again here, because I think it does an excellent job of responding to this argument, and the question of false equivalency of expertise in general: