With a recent measles outbreak in my home city – and the accompanying call by the authorities to get children up-to-date with their MMR – the autism/vaccine debate has again roared to life. For a while, I get passionate and roll up my virtual sleeves. I go in to bat against misinformation, bad arguments and baseless scare-mongering. After a while I get tired and battle-weary, and take a step back; I take a break from reading the forums in particular because there’s always another conspiracy-nut ready to take the last one’s place, and make the exact same assertions that I knocked down from someone else a page earlier.
Stepping back gives me perspective too, about some very central questions – in particular as to what are the main claims and arguments I’m coming up against, and why do people cling to them so fervently in the face of opposing evidence and science. Why do they keep citing the same few poor studies, in the face of scores of larger and more robust ones? Why do they think anecdote is stronger than scientific explanation?
I’m half way through a book which is doing a fantastic job of helping me to understand those “whys”. Reading the book, and reflecting on all those debates I get involved in, have helped me to see a huge part of the reason that some people just can’t open their minds to trying to find the answers, instead of asserting the conclusions first and then grasping so tightly to any evidence they can find to support it.
It’s a lot to do with a misunderstanding of how scientific inquiry works, and an inability or unwillingness to fact-check and follow where those superscript numbers lead. Because this is such a time-consuming task, we naturally look for people of authority to shorten the process – doctors, professors, trusted people who seem to know what they’re talking about. But if we don’t check the credentials and quality of those authority figures, we’ve got the same problem. Again, checking credentials is also very time-consuming and may not always be possible.
As I read my book (“Bad Science” by the amusing Ben Goldacre), I am given reason to believe his claims about science and whether certain people are worth listening to, because he as good as makes an art-form out of this in-depth fact-checking, and teaches us to do the same.
However I am also reminded that even someone as intelligent and informed as him, can get mislead when they take steps out of their arena of expertise. He tends to make certain claims about societal ills and potential political cures, without understanding the history, evidence and theories behind such suggestions. He doesn’t provide any tidy superscripts for his societal recommendations, but they are not the point of his book – attacking bad science is. He is clearly aware that these side-points are not matters he is trained to understand, but he brings them up time and again anyway. It annoys me in an otherwise sound and impressive book (which I must repeat, I have not finished just yet – I will write a post about the entire book after I have).
The lesson in that can be taken to the general discussion of the autism/vaccine debate too. That we should be careful when taking a gastroenterologist’s claims about immunology and developmental disorders. Yet we have to avoid getting stuck in thinking we can’t trust an immunologist because they’re not an autism expert, or an autism expert because they’re not a immunologist. Yes it would be ideal to have access to a developmental pediatrician who was trained in immunology, who had both decades of field experience and a professorship at a highly ranked university. But such markers (though helpful and relevant) don’t guarantee you someone worth listening to either – like the woman I’ve mentioned previously who is Harvard trained but links autism to breastfeeding.
I am used to having to deal with conflicted authorities and irreconcilable claims. My training in both philosophy and law was filled to the brim with arguments that looked unresolved and unresolvable. Many of my peers felt overwhelmed by the conflicts and became nihilists, anarchists, or relativists. I felt the same temptation. But instead I did much along the same lines as what Ben Goldacre encourages us to do: Look deeper. For him and science, it is a matter of looking at the foundation of the claims and the studies that lead to them, as well as understanding human psychology for why we get sucked in by bad science. For me, and law and philosophy, it is a matter of looking to the arguments for the claims too – go deeper to the epistemology, the logical fallacies, the contradictions. Seek to understand the method, and you will be well-armed when faced with conflicting “authoritative” statements at higher levels of discussion.
It’s hard, no doubt. It is time-consuming and exhausting. But if the conclusions matter to you – if you really want to know whether to vaccinate your child, and what might cause your child’s autism – then it is worth the effort. Is it not?
And we will make mistakes along the way. We will sometimes be in error and we may feel embarrassed by our errors and not want to admit to them. But again, embarrassment and admitting you’ve been wrong, is the much lesser of the comparative evil of continuing to espouse incorrect claims which cause harm to people. I have made errors before, and I will again. That does not make me a lesser person, and it does not mean I should conclude there are no truths in the world. I would only be a lesser person if I refused to learn from those errors, and concluded that the search for truth was impossible or pointless.