The claim of being “educated” about vaccines is the surest sign of ignorance

Closeup portrait of arrogant self important uppity stuck up woman with napoleon complex, short man syndrome, isolated on gray wall background. Human emotion facial expression feelings.

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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When a layperson claims to be “educated” about vaccines you can be sure that a stream of absolute nonsense will follow.[/pullquote]

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. A PhD in immunology or a related science involves four years of college, 5 years of postgraduate work, a dissertation and intimate knowledge of the relevant scientific literature. No layperson is educated in immunology. The idea is simply ludicrous.

When a lay person proudly and arrogantly claims to be “educated” about vaccination, she certainly doesn’t mean that she went to medical school or graduate school, has hands on experience caring for thousands who have been vaccinated and unvaccinated, or has read the immunology literature.

So what does she mean?

She means that she has adopted a cultural construction of “education” that has little if anything to do with actual knowledge of the topic. It means that she has ignored those who have actual education and training and crowd sourced her decisions by reading books, blogs, websites and message boards written by other lay people who are often equally ignorant.

Why have anti-vaxxers confused defiance for education?

The paper ‘Trusting blindly can be the biggest risk of all’: organised resistance to childhood vaccination in the UK explores cultural construct of being “educated.” When an anti-vax advocate claims to be “educated,” she is not talking about actual scientific knowledge. Rather she is referring to her defiance of professionals are educated.

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 anti-vaxxers can be unpacked even further; not surprisingly, anti-vax advocates portray themselves laudatory and other parents as fools and “sheeple.”

…[I]nstead 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…

…[Anti-vaxxers] 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…

In the anti-vax 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 anti-vaxxers don’t really know anything about the topic, they are inevitably forced to rely on the advice of charlatans and quacks.

The person who proudly claims to be “educated” on vaccination offers as proof the fact that she ignores the expert advice of pediatricians, immunologists and virologists and embraces the teachings of … washed up Playboy Playmate Jennifer McCarthy. In her delusion, she fail to appreciate the irony: far from being “educated,” she is shockingly credulous. Consistent with the Dunning-Kruger effect (described in the aptly named paper Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments), the anti-vaxxers who think they know the most about vaccines actually know the least.

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 anti-vax is about the parent and how she would like to see herself, not about immunology, medicine or public health. In the socially constructed world of anti-vaccine advocates, parents are divided into those (inferior) “sheeple” who are passive and blindly trust authority figures and (superior) anti-vaxxers who are “educated” and “empowered” by taking “personal responsibility”.

A lay person’s claims to be “educated” about a health topic is nothing more than defiance. When someone tells you she is “educated” about vaccines, beware! There is no surer mark of ignorance on the topic of vaccines than the arrogant claim of being “educated.”


Adapted from a piece that first appeared in August 2009.