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Yesterday on Google Plus someone in my feed linked to an article about "why people distrust science." I can't find the link or I'd post it here, but I remember thinking it was missing the real reason so many people mistrust science. I posted my opinion on my feed yesterday, and today I'm posting it here, because I think it's important to keep in mind.

Rambling dissertation follows.

The reason some people distrust science is actually pretty simple, but it works better if you narrow the focus a little. So for my example, I'm going to focus on the anti-vaccine thing that still won't go away. So: Why do some parents distrust the science behind vaccination?

Yesterday on Google Plus someone in my feed linked to an article about "why people distrust science." I can't find the link or I'd post it here, but I remember thinking it was missing the real reason so many people mistrust science. I posted my opinion on my feed yesterday, and today I'm posting it here, because I think it's important to keep in mind.

Rambling dissertation follows.

The reason some people distrust science is actually pretty simple, but it works better if you narrow the focus a little. So for my example, I'm going to focus on the anti-vaccine thing that still won't go away. So: Why do some parents distrust the science behind vaccination?

(Disclaimer: I am very pro-vaccine. My child is vaccinated. Do not take this as an attempt to advance an anti-vaccine platform, because I DO NOT HAVE ONE.)

Keep in mind that anti-vaccination targets a specific audience: parents. Vaccination involves children, the specific charge is that "vaccination can cause autism," but nobody is trying to convince the children in question. With that in mind:

1. Most parents, including me, don't have the background to differentiate between legitimate science and "junk science."

At least, not outright. Some guy going door to door selling anti gravity potions is pretty certain to set off most everyone's BS detector, but when a straight-faced, practiced charlatan tells you that the mercury in vaccines can lead to autism, your first thought as a parent is "hey, isn't mercury bad for you?" and suddenly he has some credibility, because yes, mercury is bad for you.

2. Most people don't believe scientists are actually dispassionate calculators who are 100% objective.

In other words, most people generally don't believe that scientists stick to the scientific method. Even if they do. They don't believe this because most people also have standards that they consider very important that they don't hold themselves to either. Most people believe that scientists have opinions and beliefs and political views and agendas and that those beliefs and views and agendas influence their behavior.

So when a charlatan uses words like "big pharma" and talks about a business-driven conspiracy to keep using unsafe vaccines in the name of money, some parents will at least consider the possibility, because they suspect that companies have paid scientists to do it before.

3. Going further than point #2, there are in fact bad and unethical scientists.

There are bad and unethical scientists because scientists are people. Tuskegee happened, Nazi experiments on Jews happened, and that kind of stuff scares the shit out of people.

Even pulling back, ignoring the actual scientific atrocities and focusing only on the unethical behavior, you have scientists paid by tobacco companies to lie about cancer risks, boom, the charlatan can point to examples of people who claim to be scientists downplaying or even lying about risks in order to preserve a company's profit.

4. Even good scientists can be wrong, and most people (including me) have difficulty figuring out what exactly that means

Once upon a time before plate tectonics was the generally accepted model for how the earth's crust works, there was a different generally accepted model for how the earth's crust works. And the people who accepted that model didn't believe it because they were morons, they did so because it was the best explanation they had for the information they had. They were: a) good scientists, and b) wrong.

Some of these same people, when confronted with plate tectonics, didn't immediately accept the theory. Sometimes it was because they wanted to cling to their career-making papers about the old model (and thus they switched from good to bad scientists) and sometimes it was because the new theory didn't adequately answer questions the old one did (making them skeptical and critical of the new model, but still good scientists, even though they were ultimately wrong).

On a less global scale, you have the news cheerfully mucking up this issue by making reports that don't really explain science, they just distort it into sound bytes. So someone hears "scientists say cholesterol is bad for you!" one year and then hear "scientists say only some cholesterol is bad for you!" another year and then hear "scientists say that good cholesterol isn't as good as we thought, though it isn't exactly bad, although you should still stay away from cholesterol!" and eventually people are all FUCK YOU I'M EATING A STICK OF BUTTER and move on to trying to figure out whether or not sugar is really a poison.

So a charlatan presents his vaccine revelations as a new finding, and hey--why wouldn't it be? It could happen! People discover new things all the time! Once aspirin was a universal miracle drug, and then they discovered that some people were allergic to it! Same with penicillin! It could be that the mercury in vaccines is causing autism in some children, and nobody noticed before because nobody thought to look! Scientists are wrong sometimes, right?

And so a parent files that away as well.

5. The general perception of pharmaceutical companies is that they're in it for the money, period, full stop, no exceptions.

It's hard to get around this one. We hear it on the news all the time. We hear the reason why some flu vaccines aren't available is because they're expensive to make and not profitable to sell. We hear that pharma companies prefer going after the expensive medicines because they're more lucrative. We hear on the news that one of the reasons there are now super viruses immune to antibiotics is because pharma companies don't bother trying to invent new antibiotics because it's not a money maker for them.

The phrase "big pharma" provokes a visceral reaction in me, even when I'm trying to be rational, because pharmaceutical companies are companies. Companies are predisposed to put profits ahead of people.

So all a charlatan has to do is point that out. Seriously. Practically nobody really believes there's a company out there who genuinely has the benefit of humanity at heart -- the best we hope for is that a company has convinced itself that by helping humanity in some way it can corner a market.

6. Push back from someone legitimately defending their well-researched and scientifically sound position can sound identical to push back from a company in spin mode trying to protect their profits.

This is unfortunate, but true. A scientist saying "that's ridiculous. There's no data to suggest anything of the sort" sounds like a company saying "that's ridiculous. There's no data to suggest anything of the sort." And all the charlatan has to say is "of course they'd say that, they make BILLIONS OFF VACCINES EVERY YEAR." The charlatan isn't going to bother sourcing that statement, and the parent who is already dealing with doubts in other areas isn't going to say "hold that thought while I Google it."

7. Finally, and this is important: ONE OF A PARENTS WORST FEARS IS THAT THEY WILL TRY TO DO SOMETHING GOOD THAT WILL KILL OR MAIM THEIR CHILD.

Sure, there are parents who don't give a crap about their kids. But most parents don't want their kids to die from illness. Most parents are not, in theory, opposed to giving their children medicine to prevent this.

(There are exceptions to this rule. You can discuss them if you like, but I'll ignore your comments because they're a separate issue entirely).

But parents, and I include myself here, are terrified of doing something they think will help that actually winds up KILLING OR MAIMING THEM. So if a charlatan comes up to me and says "hey, I know you love your daughter, and I'm not trying to accuse you but you need to understand that vaccinating your child can harm her" that provokes something in me because parents make mistakes all the time and some of them can be serious and HOLY SHIT THAT IS SOME KIND OF PRESSURE.

So you take parents who want very desperately not to do things that will hurt their children, you feed them a line they don't have the background to work through, you assert from authority, the other side also asserts from authority, and then it becomes a battle of "who's authority do you trust more?" And the charlatan doesn't need to convince the whole world, he just needs to convince enough people to get what he wants. And the charlatan does this by making his audience doubt the other side.

And the parents who doubt aren't doing so because they're stupid. I know some of you are going to disagree with me here, because it feels good to dismiss people who don't agree with you as being stupid, and mockery is only slightly behind porn in the rankings of What The Internet Is For. But if you don't have the right background in something, you will always be vulnerable to people who do. When I go to a mechanic and the mechanic says "you need to spend $560 to get it running again" and I ask why... I'M BLUFFING. I KNOW JACK SHIT ABOUT CARS, and all he has to is utter a stream of nonsense, but with confidence and authority, and I'll grudgingly get out my credit card.

And if someone else came up and said "hey, this guy is ripping you off" and says he can fix it for $200, and I ask "how," all he has to do is utter a stream of nonsense, but with confidence and authority, and I might say to the first guy "hey, thanks, but I got it covered."

Alas, it could turn out that the stream of nonsense the first guy uttered was "your timing belt broke and all your pistons and valves need to be replaced" in which case $560 is actually a pretty good deal for the kind of work he's doing. But I don't know that, because cars are indecipherable to me.

Well, OK, actually I did know that. But only because I learned the hard way.

Time to generalize

That was my specific example, but this can be generalized to apply to any kind of anti-science thing.

Points 1 and 5: "Science is complicated, and most of us aren't qualified to work through it on our own."

Those of us who don't spend their lives immersed in scientific education and who don't have scientific careers and who don't make a hobby of scientific inquiry don't have the depth of knowledge to stand against a charlatan. We essentially have to take someone else's word for it. And we do.

Point 7: "Parents don't want to hurt their children" is a pretty specific trigger, but generalize that to "people want to make responsible choices." Even when they don't, they want to believe they are. This can be used to as a wedge in both directions -- it can be used to drive people toward an idea ("don't vaccinate! It hurts your kids!") or away from one ("you are not destroying the planet by using plastic. Don't let the hippies make you feel guilty when you did nothing wrong!")

Points 2, 3, 4 and 6: "It doesn't matter if it's a cheap shot when it works."

Pointing out that people are imperfect undermines their authority. Pointing out that people can be wrong undermines their authority. Pointing out that people might have motives other than pure reason and science for science alone undermines their authority. When you don't have the background to figure out these things, you want to be absolutely convinced of the authority of the people you're trusting. All a charlatan has to do is make you mistrust that authority. And it doesn't matter how many people are trying to shout the charlatan down. The charlatan doesn't have to win the argument. He just has to keep arguing.

Originally posted to The Baptist Death Ray on Wed Jun 19, 2013 at 09:16 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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