The claim of being “educated” about a health topic is the surest sign of ignorance

woman shouting

What does it mean to be educated in a particular discipline? Whether that discipline is architecture, anthropology, or law, being educated generally means years of study, thousands of hours of experience, and intimate acquaintance with the specialist literature.

Medicine is like that, too. It involves four years of college, four years of medical school, 3-5 years of hands on training for 80+ hours per week, countless textbooks and intimate knowledge of the relevant medical literature. No layperson is educated in medicine. The idea is simply ludicrous. Therefore, when a layperson claims to be “educated” about a particular health topic, like childbirth, or vaccination, or autism, you can be virtually assured that a stream of absolute nonsense will follow.

When a lay person claims to be “educated” about health, she certainly doesn’t mean that she went to medical school, has hands on training caring for individuals with the condition, or is familiar with the specialist literature. So what does she mean? When a layperson proudly claims to be “educated” about a health topic she means that she has adopted a cultural construction of “education” that has little if anything to do with actual knowledge of the topic.

‘Trusting blindly can be the biggest risk of all’: organised resistance to childhood vaccination in the UK (Hobson-West, Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 29 No. 2 2007, pp. 198–215) explores cultural construction of being “educated.” As the title indicates, the authors focus on vaccine rejectionism, but the principles apply equally to natural childbirth advocacy, autism cures, and any other form of alternative health.

When advocates of vaccine rejection or natural childbirth claim to be “educated,” they are not talking about actual scientific knowledge. Indeed, the scientific data is generally ignored. The claim of being “educated” on vaccine rejection or childbirth simply stands for a refusal to agree with health professionals and refusal to trust them. Agreement with doctors is constructed as a negative and refusal to trust is constructed as a positive cultural attribute. As the authors of the paper explain:

Clear dichotomies are constructed between blind faith and active resistance and uncritical following and critical thinking. Non-vaccinators or those who question aspects of vaccination policy are not described in terms of class, gender, location or politics, but are ‘free thinkers’ who have escaped from the disempowerment that is seen to characterise vaccination…

This characterization of vaccine rejectionists or natural childbirth advocates can be unpacked even further; not surprisingly, vaccine rejectionists and natural childbirth advocates are portrayed as laudatory and other parents are denigrated.

… instead of good and bad parent categories being a function of compliance or non-compliance with vaccination advice … the good parent becomes one who spends the time to become informed and educated about vaccination…

… [vaccine rejectionists] construct trust in others as passive and the easy option. Rather than trust in experts, the alternative scenario is of a parent who becomes the expert themselves, through a difficult process of personal education and empowerment…

When a vaccine rejectionist or natural childbirth advocate claims to be “educated” on a topic they don’t mean that they have any education on the topic at all. They simply mean that they are defying authority. In their world, trusting experts is a mark of credulity, while ignoring expert advice is a sign of independent thinking and self-education. But, of course, since they don’t really know anything about the topic, they are inevitably forced to rely on the advice of propagandists, charlatans and quacks.

The person who proudly claims to be “educated” on vaccination offers as proof the fact that he ignores the expert advice of pediatricians, immunologists and virologists and embraces the teachings of … washed up Playboy Playmate Jennifer McCarthy. In their delusion, vaccine rejectionists fail to appreciate the irony. Far from being “educated,” they are unbelievably credulous.

The woman who claims to be “educated” about childbirth offers as proof the fact that she ignores the advice of obstetricians and pediatricians and embraces the teachings of … washed up talk show host Ricki Lake. Amazingly, she has no idea of how utterly foolish she sounds.

If the goal of being “educated” isn’t acquiring knowledge, what is it? The ultimate goal is to become “empowered”:

Finally, the moral imperative to become informed is part of a broader shift, evident in the new public health, for which some kind of empowerment, personal responsibility and participation are expressed in highly positive terms.

So vaccine rejectionism, like natural childbirth, is about the mother and how she would like to see herself, not about vaccines and not about children. In the socially constructed world of vaccine rejectionists, parents are divided into those (inferior) people who are passive and blindly trust authority figures and (superior) rejectionists who are “educated” and “empowered” by taking “personal responsibility”.

A lay person’s claims to be “educated” about a health topic is really a claim of defiance. The person is proudly defying the recommendations of health experts with years of education and years of training in order to credulously accept the bizarre conspiracy theories of people who have little or no education and training in the relevant discipline. When a vaccine rejectionist or a natural childbirth advocate claims to be “educated,” she means that she has thoroughly read and blindly accepted the propaganda of other people who are equally uneducated.

When someone tells you she is “educated” on a healthcare topic, beware! There is no surer mark of ignorance on the topic than the proud claim of being “educated.”