Beware Superficial Plausibility

Andrew Wakefield was funded by some people suing vaccine manufacturers to publish some extremely damaging research. With a sample size of twelve people, he “found” that the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine caused autism, kicking off the modern anti-vax movement.

In most places where I spend time, anti-vaxxers are an easy target. They’re not just wrong: they’re harming people. And when we desist, it’s because we realize that spending time mocking people who are obviously wrong is bad for us (here’s Scott for an example).

“You need to do your research”: Vaccines, contestable science, and maternal epistemology is a fascinating article because it’s a sympathetic view of the “critical, postmodern, and feminist perspectives on science and knowledge production” by anti-vax mothers. The author has a Ph.D. in Communications and an MA in English Lit, Critical Theory, and Women’s Studies: she’s sympathetic to their concerns and, when she talks about multiple sources of knowledge and contesting scientific explanations of the world, is familiar with a compatible intellectual tradition. And with quotes from her article, I’m going to try to demonstrate just how divorced reasoning processes can be from outcomes by showing how people can land on very familiar views that I expect many of my readers to share, while also drawing from painfully bad epistemology.

Epistemic status: this is a qualitative study with a sample size of 50 people. Worse, it’s someone sympathetically reporting these mothers’ framings to an audience, instead of giving us access to the raw data. Take everything here with several grains of salt.

Participants in this study lacked confidence in the quality of much published research on this topic in light of traditional scientific standards.

Arguments maintained the ideal of expert knowledge but challenged particular claims to expertise

Arguments from participants were not based in a contention that participants had the right to be included in the technical sphere but rather suggested that the standards of the technical sphere had become too lax. This distinction is important because it challenges the commonplace assumption that vaccine refusers believe in pseudoscience as definitive. Instead, participants in this study lacked confidence in the quality of much published research on this topic in light of traditional scientific standards.

“My big thing is when, you know, they don’t do a double-blind research on it. So it’s not like they take a test group and give them this vaccine, and take another test group and not give them a vaccine because, from what I’ve read, they feel that would be unethical to deprive a child from the vaccine. So what they do is, they test it against some different form of vaccine that’s not even the same vaccine”

“And then, like, if you read the news, you see these studies like, “Oh, twenty year study on vitamins and supplements” and they really don’t do anything. So you see all this research and studies come out on other things, but you never see long term research studies come out on vaccines”

Participants suggested that, although scientific expertise exists, education and titles did not necessarily confer it.

These are very reasonable criticisms! Anyone paying attention should lack confidence in the quality of much published research, especially anything published before 2013. Moreover, they’re criticisms that, if they were levelled against something other than vaccines, I might nod along with. It’s not just the conclusions,

But the reasoning that produces this is...less good. Firstly, there’s a strong commitment to the idea of a process of discovery, not to actually identifying unique truth.

Participants argued that it was not the conclusions of research that matter but, rather, the process of discovery. This distinction reflected the importance of doing one’s own research, which was overwhelmingly included in participants’ advice to other mothers. This advice communicates the importance of being informed and educated, but also reflected a contention that scientific research—and the conclusion it yields—is personal. In particular, the use of the possessive noun in advice regarding research was almost ubiquitous and, I argue, crucial to the meaning that mothers ascribed to the phrase. That is, the advice to other mothers was not to “do research” but to “do your own research” or “she needs to do her research.” The possessive pronoun both indicated and constituted a broader worldview in which research and science can yield multiple and contestable truths.

“I would tell her to do her own research, to educate herself, and to really know that it is her baby and it’s her choice. It is not her doctor’s choice, it is not her mom’s choice, it’s not her neighbor’s choice, and it is not her school’s choice.”

“Honestly, you can read all the things you want to read, you can, you know, sort of like I was saying before, find both sides out there I mean, and it’s really gonna come down to your gut. You know what you know about your child, and weighing the risks and benefits in your own mind, you know, it comes down to you. You’re responsible for this child, what’s best for him or her, and you’re the only person who knows what you know.”

An expectation that information be shared, and that aspiring rationalists should come to agreement, is a strong protective factor pointing people towards truth. Errors are semi-random and truth is fixed, so a moderate dose of Condorcet’s Jury Theorem is helpful, even if we abandon all ideas of interpersonal knowledge comparisons.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. They also employ the naturalistic fallacy.

In the absence of understanding about the body, the best a mother can aim for is to protect the body from the threat of taint or artificial and inevitably damaging intervention

There’s a preference for emotionally compelling anecdotes over statistical data.

“You know, mothers that have been there. There are many mothers that have actually written books, there’s a lot of blogs by moms that have lost children from reactions like that, and there are horrifying pictures. I mean, I don’t—you can’t ignore that kind of evidence.”

We can suspect a litany of other intellectual errors, of course, but those are the ones that come through even in a relatively sympathetic reading. When your ideal of truth is embodied in maternal instinct, as opposed to minimizing prediction error, we should expect them.

In conclusion, as you might expect of people who are very wrong about something both socially and scientifically well-established, their reasoning processes are bad. But look back to those earlier arguments. They sound so reasonable! Yeah, a lot of doctors don’t really know what they’re doing, and should not be trusted as all-knowing sources of authority. Just as reversed stupidity is not intelligence, superficial intelligence can mask all sorts of errors.

With thanks to Ozy, who reminded me that I should use language well and think about what I say, and Swimmer963, who kindly reviewed this via Feedback such that I ended up completely rewriting it. All remaining errors are my own.