Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Darn Anti-Vaxxers, Takin' our Jobs/Women

Currently, I'm seeing a lot of my Facebook friends making posts about how terrible anti-vaxxers are -- basically, that they're idiotic child-abusers who should have their children taken away from them and be given the death penalty (all of those are taken from actual posts I've seen).

My first thought: I think this might be a little extreme.

RE: Idiotic. I'm not an immunologist. I'm guessing most of you aren't either. I don't even know whether an immunologist is the right person to ask questions about vaccines (like how a linguist is not necessarily a person who knows a lot of languages).

But the thing is: science is hard. No matter what your hypothesis about the world is, I guarantee you can find at least one honestly designed study that presents evidence for it and another that presents evidence against it. The problem is that, when people get into camps on one side or another, each side will say that their preferred study "refutes" (or, if you want to be more clickbaity, "destroys" or "demolishes" or "eviscerates") the other side.

There's a reason people spend years in university learning the basics about this stuff, and then spend the rest of their lives doing research. When, for example, you hear that 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans, bear in mind that the remaining 3% still know way more about climate science than you do, and if they're wrong, their wrongness is probably based in more information than you have.

So, naturally, when someone's response to anti-vaxxers is to shout "HERD IMMUNITY! HERD IMMUNITY!" or some other word they just heard that day, over and over again, without knowing what it means, I'm not convinced that that person really knows what they're talking about any more than the anti-vaxxers do -- if they're right, they're right by accident.

If being a rational person were easy, everybody in the world would already be doing it. When people make fun of anti-vaxxers, they're saying "Ha ha, look at how stupid those OTHER people are!" without really reflecting on how those other people came to arrive at the stupid beliefs they have. Unless you're an omniscient being, chances are there's some belief you currently have that's just as stupid as being anti-vaccination -- it's just that *your* stupid belief happens not to be in the news just yet.

RE: Child abusers. This is using the term "child abuse" in a kind of nebulous way. Cognitive scientists sometimes talk about prototypes of concepts -- for example, when I say "bird", you're more likely to picture a robin or a sparrow than, for example, a penguin or a potoo (if you've never seen a picture of a potoo, please look it up, for your own amusement). And when I say "child abuse", you're likely to picture a prototypical example like a parent physically beating up a child.

Not having your children vaccinated is bad. But I'm not sure if it constitutes child abuse. And if it is technically child abuse ("the BEST kind of child abuse"?) I'm even less sure that it merits the same connotations as beating up your kids every day.

I don't like arguing semantics. If you think something is really, really bad, then you should be able to explain why it's really, really bad without relying heavily on specific words. If you have to pull out a dictionary and say "X fits definition Y, and Y has connotation Z, so you should associate X with connotation Z!" then you haven't really made an argument, you've just fit a word to a definition and relied on the listener's brain to fill in the connotation.

RE: Children taken away. There is precedent for this kind of thing. When parents try to prevent their children from having a blood transfusion (usually for religious reasons) sometimes the government steps in and decides that the children's lives matter more than the parents' beliefs. I think that's usually fair for blood transfusions, but it seems a tad extreme for vaccinations. Not vaccinating a child doesn't usually put the child in *immediate* danger, at least not in the same way that *not having blood* puts the child in immediate danger.

(Side question that just occurred to me: are there any diseases for which it is possible to immunize children, but NOT adults, i.e. when they grow up, it's too late to be immunized? I know that in the olden days (i.e. until the 90's) it used to be the case that parents would intentionally give their children chicken pox so they would develop an immunity and not get shingles later in life, before the varicella vaccination existed. But are there any vaccinations that need to be given to people when they're children?)

RE: Death Penalty. I've had this feeling for a while that, if you're not mad enough to get off of Facebook, buy a gun and kill someone, then you must not really want that person to die. Usually, I see this in a thread of comments of people saying increasingly mean things about the person/group of people they happen to be mad at at the moment, in a kind of "Who can be the most conspicuously indignant?" contest -- same with the above comment about how their children should be taken away.


My second, much shorter thought, was this:

If I am right, and people are more angry at anti-vaxxers than they should be, then we have an opportunity here.

I think that slander sometimes works like the stock market -- I've heard the stock market referred to as "anti-inductive", in the sense that, if you notice a pattern, then you can profit from it, but as you do so, and as more people find out about this pattern, the pattern will disappear. A belief that follows this pattern is sometimes called a "reverse Tinkerbell" belief, i.e. a belief that becomes less true the more it is believed.

Similarly: If everyone is inordinately mad at a certain group of people who have the label X, then calling a random person X will damage that person's reputation, but as more people realize this and start calling each other X, the word will start to lose its sting and everyone will have to go back to actually presenting arguments for their positions for a while. Overuse of the word would, for lack of a better term, "correct the inefficiency in the market". The classic example would be "communist". There might have been a time when accusing someone of being a communist had some sting, but if I called someone a communist today with the intent of ruining their reputation without any evidence and without explaining why it's bad, I'd be more likely to ruin my own credibility than theirs.

Right now, if I really hated someone and quickly wanted to ruin their reputation, at least within my circle of friends and acquaintances, I would say (or heavily imply) that they are an anti-vaxxer. I'd probably cherry-pick some weak evidence to try to prove my point. I'd do it as soon as possible, though -- when word gets out, it'll stop working.
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It Seemed Funny at the Time by Ben Buckley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Canada License.