Solution to anti-vaccination controversy: build bridges?

February 5, 2010 • 12:27 pm

In one way, the anti-vax movement is like creationism: it’s built on preconceived notions, personal bias, and scientific ignorance.  But it’s much worse than creationism, for while nobody ever died from rejecting evolution, misguided opposition to vaccination actually kills people.

Over at Science Progress, Chris Mooney has the solution: it’s partly the fault of a “remote and haughty” medical establishment that simply needs to be more conciliatory:

Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything. We need to encourage moderation, and break down a polarized situation in which the anti-vaccine crowd essentially rejects modern medical research based on the equivalent of conspiracy theory thinking, even as mainstream doctors just shake their heads at these advocates’ scientific cluelessness. Vaccine skepticism is turning into one of the largest and most threatening anti-science movements of modern times. Watching it grow, we should be very, very worried—and should not assume for a moment that the voice of scientific reason, in the form of new studies or the debunking of old, misleading ones, will make it go away.

Sound familiar?  Good luck with getting those people in a room and forcing them to agree!

Over at Respectful Insolence (and also in comment #3 after Mooney’s piece), Orac dismantles this why-can’t-we-all-love-each-other attitude:

Chris is profoundly misguided in his apparent belief that any amount of “bridge building” will bring anti-vaccine activists around. Their beliefs are as ingrained as those of any fundamentalist religion and just as resistant to bridge-building over the core belief around which they revolve. Indeed, trying to reach out to leaders of the anti-vaccine movement is pointless. It is, as AutismNewsBeat so pithily characterizes it, akin to “bridge-building efforts by evolutionary biologists toward creationists. Or by B’nai Brith to mend fences with the Nazis. I’m sure those meetings went well.” I agree fully. Thinking that “building bridges” to the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement will achieve anything except giving them more opportunity to sabotage public health by giving them an unearned feeling of power and legitimacy is likely to be as productive as evolutionary biologists engaging with Ken Ham, Casey Luskin, or Dr. Michael Egnor or for Deborah Lipstadt to engage with David Irving. As they say, you can’t use reason to lead someone away from views that they didn’t reach using reason.

All this warm and fuzzy sentiment about making nice to the benighted may sound good, and may appeal to middle-of-the-roaders who think that there can be a compromise between scientific fact and willful ignorance, but it won’t solve the problem of anti-vaxers, just as it hasn’t solved the problem of creationism.

Extremism in the defense of vaccination is no vice.

71 thoughts on “Solution to anti-vaccination controversy: build bridges?

    1. Sure. suffering permanent scarring from an episode of smallpox which didn’t kill you. There were lots of examples of this.

      1. Well since someone has to be pedantic and point it out, your example clearly falls into the “not dying from smallpox” category and so does not qualify as a middle ground.

  1. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything.

    Come on, they can agree on something. Perhaps that homeopathy is worthless? Then afterward we can get in the room with the homeopaths and agree that the anti-vaxers are crazy.

      1. Holy crap! Please tell me you’re joking about “homeopathic vaccination.” Can they work a reference to “toxins” into it?

    1. Chris Mooney is an intelligent guy with relevant training. I don’t see how he would be different to DJ Grothe in that respect. Besides DJ was deep into framing, it didn’t stop provocative interviews.

    2. I was thinking that too; I’m rather disappointed that Grothe talks it up too. But with any luck his co-panelists might tear strips off him and that should make for light entertainment – something like a christian in a pit of hungry lions but not as gruesome.

      1. Yeah, DJ did a touchy-feely interview, just using his questions to get the interviewee to talk more, but he definitely was softball.

        Milquetoast Mooney better have his fainting couch handy for when someone he criticizes (such as any real scientist or any atheist who speaks up). Will he interview PZ Myers when his book comes out, or will he pass that off and hide, clutching his pearls while he soils himself?

        I knew Mooney was bad, but this latest is the same type of BS as the “bipartisanship” that has worked so well for our government. We criticized people for electing Maher for the Dawkins award, can we criticize CFI for their disastrous selection?

    1. “Mooney seems to be a one trick pony.”

      Really, I was going to say the exact same thing.
      And his one trick is the golden mean fallacy

    2. Hey, that’s not fair on architects – I’ve known many good ones who refuse to design any two things alike. After all, if you wanted everything to look the same you don’t need architects.

      1. I didn’t mean to be unfair to architects, but he does seem keen on building.

        Anyway, you can have lots of different bridges – Box, Suspension ….

        (Box in your opponent or Suspend your belief :> )

  2. The best we can hope for is these ignorant anti-vaxers will die out with brainwashing as few children to carry their torch as possible.

  3. Hey Alan P’s suggestion is a good one! It’s just that Mooney has missed his calling – he’s really an engineer! He longs to build bridges. A highly respectable and useful line of work; I wish him well in it.

    As a replacement for DJ Grothe, not so much.

  4. Chris Mooney’s formula for argument success:

    X is bad. Strategy Y used to combat X is ineffective (no need to support this assertion). Therefore, strategy Z will be effective.

    Notes: This argument works best if strategy Y involves being mean, distant, logical, right. Strategy Z can then involve being nice, smiling, emotional and bending the truth to fit someone else’s preconceived notions.

    1. Let me elaborate just a little…

      X is bad. Strategy Y used to combat X is elitist and mean and just another battle in the culture war, and therefore ineffective (no need to support this assertion). Therefore, strategy Z, which involves bridges and people in rooms and the word ‘moderate,’ will be effective.

      1. Oh I totally forgot the word moderate. As everyone knows, the moderate position is always the right one, or at least the most sensible! I had a friend tell me the other day that he’s a moderate (on political issues) because that meant he takes each issue as it comes. He’s a smart guy, but really sometimes people can be so thick.

      2. Yeh – he thinks it’s all politics. I’ve just been saying that on Science Progress. It’s such a basic mistake…

        …and shows a profound misunderstanding of science. This is all a piece with the whole “framing” issue — the truth is less important than agreement, and sacrificing truth to have everyone get along is an acceptable loss.

  5. People will believe anything at all — and will rabidly support absolutely anything at all — if you tell them there’s a threat to their children. The power of anti-vax thinking is only one instance of this… and, sadly, I see no way at all to combat it. Natural selection has resulted in a paternal/maternal instinct that is far stronger than any rational thought mechanism.

  6. “nobody ever died from rejecting evolution”

    But it would seem that some have died due to the failures of others to understand it and be cognizant of it… MRSA? Lysenko’s bitter harvest?

  7. Let me be the first to suggest a new line of investigation:

    Someone needs to look back a couple of years or so and find out what blunt object trauma affected Chris Mooney and caused his brain damage.

    First ‘framing’ then accommodation and ‘shut up’ followed by bridge building. Yes, we have a three time loser!

    (I do not want to hear anyone say this is ad hominem – I attack his bizarre ideas, not his character)

    1. I hear framing criticized a lot but I’m not sure I understand why? I’ve looked it up (on wikipedia and the like) and can’t figure out what it is that is being criticized.

      1. Try looking up Matt Nisbet and framing together – that would probably take you to some background info.

        NEB, I think the blunt trauma that happened to Chris was Matt Nisbet. He seemed to be fine until they teamed up.

    2. The only rational explanation for Mr. Mooneys’ behavior is that he was brainwashed by Prof. Nisbet during his sojourn in Washington, D.C. Apparently, his sojourn in Los Angeles some 3000 miles away didn’t entirely dewash his brain, although he no longer cites the good professor as his guru on communications. It has also been speculated that his association with Ms. Kirshenbaum, who, apparently, has some religious convictions has influenced his post Los Angeles attitude.

      1. He might have been brainwashed by Washington itself. He seems to be applying the “Washington Conventional Wisdom” model (personified by David Broder of the Washington Post, and his ilk) to science-related issues.

  8. Some of these anti-vaccine people are just a few planks short of a bridge, and might possibly be made to see the light (though doubtfully), whereas the leaders haven’t got any planks at all for above mentioned bridge.
    As for Chris ‘Chamberlain’ Mooney’s pandering suggestion, I think a Churchill-stand has more chance of success among the general public.

  9. A minor nit to pick: Years ago, a surgeon transplanted a baboon heart into a little girl. Of course she rejected it and died. He was asked how he could justify thinking it would work, considering the 40 MY (or whatever it was) since a common ancestor of baboons and humans.

    His response was that he really couldn’t answer that, considering that he did not “believe in” evolution.

    Creationism has killed at least one person.

    1. How sure are we of that? Given that humans are not all transplant-compatible, it seems to me that case-by-case tissue type matching should over-ride general considerations of phylogeny. Note: I have no idea what sort of typing Baby Faye’s surgeons did — but I haven’t heard anyone else discuss specifics of the case, either.

      1. I’m not an expert, but my impression is that, with humans, you can check a certain reasonable number of proteins (or whatever) for compatibility and assume that most of the others are OK. But a greater phylogenetic separation would mean divergence in proteins that do not differ in humans.

        So if you check all of the proteins you would normally check in humans, you are still overlooking incompatibilities when dealing with a species with a more distant common ancestor.

    2. The “of course” in your post betrays a prejudice without knowing the full details of the case. The fact of common ancestry a priori implies that the heart might or might not work, but is more likely to work than the heart of a species with more distant common ancestry. The only way to really know is to try it and see. If all species were equally useless as models for humans it would be an argument for creationism.

  10. I note that Orac has shown up in the comments at the Intersection asking Chris for specific strategies for ‘bridge building’ beyond the numerous, cited (by Orac) examples of previous attempts of same which have all failed quite spectacularly.

    Alas, history suggests that requesting specifics from Mooney is tantamount to requesting blood from turnips. Good luck, Orac.

      1. I’ve found that any critical posts I make mysteriously vanish. (And yet Kwok and McCarthy can post whatever they please – go figure.) I’d be curious to see what Orac posted as well.

  11. I hate the kind of pontificating posture that Chris Mooney adopts. If he thinks the answer is bridge-building, then he should build a bridge an show us how it’s done. But there’s no point in getting all warm and fuzzy over bridges, if there are rapids down below.

    Given Mooney’s record over the last few months, he’s knocked down more bridges than he’s built. Why doesn’t he try a really easy case – say, the 9/11 conspiracy theorists. After all, you can’t get much haughtier than government and the security services – and, anyway, no one has any really personal stake in this, do they?

    Once he’s showed how to build bridges over this fairly calm sea, then he can start to work on antivaxxers. Because they do have a personal stake in this: their children. And I suspect they’re not going to go quietly. After all, someone’s got to be blamed for autism, and it’s not going to be God!

  12. I’m still waiting for Chris Mooney to write an evolution book to show Dawkins how it is done. His rhetoric is just that, and until he backs it up with a demonstration that it is actually effective then all he’s doing is concern-trolling.

  13. Since the Toothy Ones are great believers in moderation (every conceivable pun intended), I’ll post this here as well:

    » Chris Mooney:
    Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement.

    Well, that’s science. “And science is one cold-hearted bitch with a 14-inch strap-on!” What are you going to do?

    And I mean that entirely seriously. What are you going to do?

    We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything.

    Really? Anything? That’s all he’s got? After writing a whole book on scientific literacy and how to improve it he has no idea what the basics even might look like that one would have to agree on?

    And he must have noticed that the denialists (of whatever stripe) look for all the world as though they’re determined to push through their point of view, no matter what. If that is so, then they will not agree on anything that isn’t exactly that point of view. What do we do then?

    1. [the denialists] look for all the world as though they’re determined to push through their point of view, no matter what.

      That sounds like a certain Toothy commentator, no?

  14. On the evolution/religion issue, Mooney at least has a pragmatic case to make for the compromise strategy (albeit a disingenuous one). But with the anti-vaxxers? What is it that the forces of reason are supposed to strategically concede? What are we supposed to keep carefully quiet about?

    1. I don’t see how Mooney’s religion/science plan has any merit whatsoever. He claims it has merit but like the Discovery Institute he has no evidence; in fact there is much history which suggests otherwise.

  15. Creationism DID kill someone! Remember the 1984 case of Baby Fae, who died because her creationist doctor transplanted a baboon heart into her–BECAUSE he didn’t believe in evolution?

    1. Whether or not the surgeon was a creationist had no bearing on the death of Baby Fae. Had the transplant been successful – and evolution in no way rules out the possibility – the operation would have revolutionised transplant surgery, allowing for a plentiful supply of hearts. The critical factor was the skill level at the time. There was no precedent for human infant-infant heart transplants and the surgeon hoped that a new drug would help prevent tissue rejection.
      The Legacy of Baby Fae

      1. I disagree. The problem is that, with 50 million years of divergence between monkeys and apes, there were too many polymorphic proteins to be able to test them all. The tests that would have sufficed in human tissue transplants would be inadequate with that much divergence.

      2. The surgeon had some success transplanting pig hearts into goats. If no human heart was available, given the state of knowledge at that time, there was little to lose by testing out the new anti-rejection drug that had worked with xenografts of other species.

  16. Ths same situation exists in relation to the use of animals in medical research. It is beyond naive to think that you could get vegan anti-vivisectionists to sit down with researchers and reach anything worthy of being called agreement.

  17. which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty

    Way to piss on entire profession, there, Mooneytits. Did a GP steal your lollipop or summat?

  18. What would characterize “extremism”? I don’t see anything at all extreme in saying that anti-vax people are ignorant and are liars; when more evidence is brought against their false claims they simply invent more moronic claims. The fundamental problem is that medical science doesn’t have a cure for everything and that there are many afflictions which are not very well understood. The anti-vax crowd want a delusion in which they tell themselves they know something and that they are being persecuted by an evil cabal. They want to give themselves (and others) false assurances rather than accepting the facts as they are and working toward establishing and funding work which may lead to something in the future. So while there are organizations dedicated to funding research on cancer, multiple sclerosis, fibrosis, parkinson’s disease and so on, the anti-vax people can’t accept that they may never see any great breakthroughs in their lifetimes so they pretend to have something and pretend to know something and look for group assent. Such activity is counterproductive and anathema to good science; the anti-vax crowd are a crank group and should be fought. Any compromise only lets the bullshit through the doors.

  19. There is a “reaching out” strategy that is worthwhile, and that is reaching out to more of our rational neighbors to convince them that the infectious disease promotion movement is not only wrong but dangerous.

  20. The middle ground between rational-empiricism and irrational-anti-empiricism is irrational-anti-empiricism. The two styles of argumentation are entirely incompatible, and Mooney is a fool to believe otherwise–although I’m sure it sells books, so, financially, he’s not such a fool. So maybe he knows this, and just doesn’t care. Who cares how many kids have to die–hey, look at my royalties!

  21. You raise a good point. By pandering to the anti-vaccine crowd, instead of coming out squarely against them, how many lives will he affect? He gives them respectability, after all he’s a big-time author, and there are bound to be people influenced by his stamp of approval. And that’s what he’s doing by advocating bringing them in on an equal level with the medical community, giving them his stamp of approval.

  22. But there are some medical doctors who are anti-vaccination nuts.
    Therefore it is an empirical fact that anti-vaccination is compatible with medicine!
    (Channeling my inner Mooney!)

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