The ultimate appeal of anti-vaccine advocacy: it flatters the ignorant

Superhero girl. Confident young woman

One of the most attractive aspects of anti-vaccine advocacy, indeed of all alternative health, is that no particular knowledge is necessary to declare yourself an expert.

It doesn’t matter that you don’t have even the most basic knowledge of science and statistics. It doesn’t matter that you don’t have any understanding at all of the complex fields of immunology or virology. Your personal experiences count for more than the collective wisdom of doctors, scientists and public health officials. Hence Jenny McCarthy, a B movie actress with no training of any kind in science is touted by herself and others as an “expert” on vaccines. Hence Modern Alternative Mother Kate Tietje and similarly undereducated mommy bloggers parade themselves as “experts” on vaccination.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]You don’t have to listen to experts; you are an expert.[/pullquote]

As the paper The Persuasive Appeal of Alternative Medicine explains:

The person-centered experience is the ultimate verification and reigns supreme in alternative science… Alternative medicine makes no rigid separation between objective phenomena and subjective experience. Truth is experiential and is ultimately accessible to human perceptions… [O]bjective diagnostic or laboratory tests that discern what cannot be felt never replace human awareness… [A]lternative medicine, unlike the science component of biomedicine, does not marginalize or deny human experience; rather, it affirms patients’ real-life worlds. When illness (and, sometimes, biomedicine) threatens a patient’s capacity for self-knowledge and interpretation, alternative medicine reaffirms the reliability of his or her experience.

On its face, such an appeal seems ludicrous, but it provides powerful validation for people who are frightened and confused:

  • You don’t have to listen to experts; you are an expert.
  • It doesn’t matter what studies show about whether vaccines cause autism; it only matters that it seems to you that vaccines cause autism.
  • Your personal experience isn’t irrelevant to determining whether vaccines cause autism; it is the central, perhaps the only, thing you need to know to make a determination.

Anti-vax advocacy reflects the conviction that no particular knowledge is necessary to pontificate on a topic. Merely having a child who is autistic and has been vaccinated (against anything, at any time) automatically qualifies them to pontificate on “vaccine injuries.” It’s the equivalent of claiming that their personal experience of gravity qualifies them as experts on Einstein’s theories.

Anti-vaxxers attempt to justify the lack of understanding of immunology and infectious diseases by making disparaging claims about the value of science itself. These types of claims are made by people who clearly feel threatened by knowledge (or their lack of it). It is not coincidence that these claims have been invoked by flat-earthers, creationists and climate science deniers as well.

These claims include:

  • Statistics cannot tell us everything about what happens.
  • Science tells us something different than experience tells us.
  • Science does not tell us the truth because it is manipulated by scientists for their own ends.
  • Science does not tell us the truth because it is manipulated by business people for their own ends.
  • There is no such thing as scientific truth.

These claims are not merely a justification of lack of knowledge; they are an affirmative celebration of ignorance.

Anti-vaccine advocacy is not simply based on factual errors and a pervasive failure to understand basic science and statistics, not to mention immunology and infectious diseases. It is also based on a denial of the need for specific knowledge and a disparagement of such knowledge. By elevating personal experience to the same or even higher level than knowledge of the relevant subject matter, anti-vax advocacy makes everyone an “expert.”

In other words, instead of imparting new knowledge, instead of protecting children, it merely flatters the ignorant.


Addendum: Anyone want to claim that vaccines are unsafe or ineffective?

Please post citation to at least 10 large scale meta-analyses from high impact journals that support your contention that vaccines are not safe.

If you cannot, or if you post links to old, obscure papers in low impact journals, I will consider that an admission of defeat.


Adapted from a piece that first appeared in May 2009.