When one of my sons was in the third grade, we had an argument about arithmetic, specifically division.
He had been struggling over his homework, trying to determine the answer to a word problem:
Whining that I don’t take your YouTube citation seriously is like whining that an MIT astrophysicist doesn’t take your styrofoam solar system model seriously.
If Jack has 18 pennies and wants to separate them into 3 groups, how many pennies will be in each group.
I pointed out that it was a division problem: 18 ÷ 3 = 6.
“No,” he wailed, “no it isn’t. That’s not the way my teacher explained it. You weren’t there. You didn’t hear what she said. You don’t know anything!”
I collected 18 pennies and put them on the table.
“Make 3 group out of these pennies and be sure each group has the same number of pennies,” I instructed.
It didn’t take him long to created three piles of 6 pennies each. He looked up at me with a shy smile and asked:
“How did you know?”
How did I know? I knew because I could draw on far greater arithmetic knowledge than he could. He knew very little about multiplication and division, fractions or percentages; and, of course, he knew nothing at all about algebra and calculus.
Arguing with anti-vaxxers reminds me of that episode because it is in many ways like arguing with 8 year olds. Their knowledge base is incredibly limited; their ability to go beyond basic sources of knowledge is profoundly restricted; and, on top of that, they have literally no idea how little they know.
Anti-vaxxers get incredibly frustrated arguing with me and for many of the same reasons that my 8 year old got frustrated. They don’t understand that what they’ve heard and read represents just a tiny fraction of the knowledge on the topic; their ability to go beyond plain language sources of knowledge into the scientific literature is profoundly restricted; and, on top of that, they have literally no idea how little they know.
They are proud of their “knowledge” garnered from websites, Facebook pages and YouTube videos. They don’t understand that citing YouTube is like citing Highlights Magazine. No doubt Highlights Magazine is filled with lots of accurate information about the solar system, for example, and perhaps after reading the magazine you could build a solar system model using string and stryrofoam balls. But that doesn’t make you an astro-physicist.
Whining that I don’t take your YouTube citations seriously is no different from showing up at an MIT astrophysics class and whining that they don’t take your styrofoam solar system model seriously. The other astrophysics students would laugh at you and your lack of both knowledge and sophistication. Anti-vaxxers should understand that when you cite YouTube, those who have advanced knowledge of these topics are laughing at you for the same reason: you are merely displaying your lack of both knowledge and sophistication.
Most 8 year olds, when told by authority figures that Highlights Magazine or a third grade classroom don’t represent the limits of knowledge on a topic, will generally accept that when they know more, things will look different. In contrast, most anti-vaxxers, when told by science authorities that the websites, Facebook pages and YouTube videos that they’ve seen don’t represent the limits of knowledge on the topic of vaccination, refuse to accept that if they knew more, things would look very different.
Partly that’s because defiance of authority is an integral component of anti-vax advocacy. They literally believe they know more than authorities. That makes about as much sense as the third grader who thinks he knows more about division than someone who took college calculus. And most of the gambits favored by anti-vaxxers sound as foolish coming out of their mouths as they would if a 3rd grader berated his teacher.
Can you imagine a 3rd grader whining to the teacher: “Just because you have a degree in mathematics doesn’t mean you know more arithmetic than me”?
Ridiculous, right? And it’s equally ridiculous for anti-vaxxers to whine: “Just because you have a degree in medicine doesn’t mean you know more immunology than me!”
Can you imagine a 3rd grader whining: “You might have a fancy degree, but I bet you didn’t learn any division in your math PhD program”?
Hilarious, right? And it’s equally hilarious when anti-vaxxers whine: “Medical schools only spend one day on immunology!”
Can you imagine a 3rd grader whining: “You’re just a shill for the math textbook industry?”
Sounds idiotic, right? And it’s equally idiotic for anti-vaxxers to whine to nearly all the doctors, research scientists and public health officials in the world, “you’re just a shill for Big Pharma.”
It can be charming when 3rd graders fail to understand how little they know about a topic despite the fact that they’ve completed 2nd grade. It’s not charming when someone with a only a high school diploma or an undergraduate degree in art fails to understand how little he knows about immunology.
It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect, first described in a classic paper Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments:
…[T]hose with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.
Anti-vaxxers suffer from this dual burden. Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.
They need to understand the depth and breadth of their own ignorance. Citing YouTube merely confirms their profound ignorance.