The appeal of vaccine rejectionism: like all alternative health it flatters the ignorant

One of the most attractive aspects of vaccine rejectionism, 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 experience qualifies you as an expert. Hence Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, two actors with no training of any kind in science, are touted by themselves and other as “experts” on vaccination.

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.

Vaccine rejectionism implicitly reflects the conviction that no particular knowledge is necessary. Both immunology and virology, the foundations of vaccine science, are extremely complex. They are not as arcane as, say, the Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but they require years of study and a fund of specialized, technical knowledge.

Vaccine rejectionists simply ignore this point. It’s not that they claim to have any knowledge of immunology or virology. They simply behave as if such knowledge is unnecessary. Merely having a child who is autistic and has been vaccinated (against anything, at any time) automatically qualifies them to pontificate on the claim that vaccination “causes” autism. They believe that their “personal experience” of vaccination makes them as experts on vaccination, which is the equivalent of claiming that their “personal experience” of gravity qualifies them as experts on Einstein’s theory.

Vaccine rejectionists attempt to justify the lack of understanding of science and statistics, let alone immunology and virology, by making disparaging claims about the value of science itself . These are claims make by people who clearly feel threatened by knowledge. It is not coincidence that these claims have been invoked by flat-earth theorists, and creationists as well as by purveyors and supporters of vaccine rejectionism. Such claims include:

There are areas of knowledge that are not accessible to science.
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. Vaccine rejectionism is not simply based on factual errors and a pervasive failure to understand basic science and statistics, as well as immunology and virology. 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 actual knowledge of the relevant subject matter, vaccine rejectionism makes everyone an “expert.” Instead of imparting new knowledge, instead of protecting children, however, it merely flatters the ignorant.