Sometimes it’s nice to hear this stuff coming from someone else.
Sometimes it’s nice to hear this stuff coming from someone else.
I’m sure some of you have been following this story:
The BC Centre for Disease Control asked health-care professionals and the public to be alert for measles on Tuesday after eight of the 14 cases were diagnosed in a single household with unvaccinated members. None of the cases identified to date had received two doses of the measles vaccine, which is needed for full protection, officials said in statement.
My stance on anti-vaccination groups has been stated quite unequivocally on a previous post. To put it briefly, they are prime examples of the Forces of Stupid, a group of people who seem to think that ignorance is a virtue and anyone with access to the internet is equally equipped to give an informed opinion, regardless of the process by which they arrived at their knowledge. Part of the reason I started writing this blog is to challenge the idea that everyone is entitled to an opinion. Some opinions, when left unchallenged, result in calamity. This measles outbreak is a prime example of what happens when we “leave well enough alone” and allow stupidity to take root.
Obviously, there should be robust debate about important issues. However, there is no room to debate facts. Facts are not subject to democratic approval. Something either is or it isn’t, regardless of whether or not we agree with it. If you disagree, find evidence to support your belief. The evidence needs to be stronger than the evidence that supports your opposition. That is how progress gets made.
Which is why it’s so painful to see articles like this one:
Unvaccinated students are being sent home from school because of the growing measles outbreak in Vancouver, and that has at least one parent concerned that the policy is unfair.
A student’s mother chose to refuse the measles vaccination for her daughter, citing fear of a reaction to egg albumin in the vaccine. That’s a completely reasonable stance to take if there’s legitimate concern over an allergic reaction. What isn’t reasonable though, is expecting everyone else to bend over backwards to accommodate her decision.
“I think every parent, whatever decision they make, it’s always because they love their kids, and they want to do what’s best. It’s not a right or wrong issue,” said Conley [the mother]. But Conley said the length of the quarantine is too long because she believes measles is only infectious for up to 14 days.
Good for her. What do people who know something believe? I couldn’t care less what some random lady thinks about a disease. Luckily, she’s not in any position to set policy and has been overruled by the school board, who cite the science dictating a 20-day possible incubation period. They are, reasonably, erring on the side of caution. Not only that, but in this case it is a “right or wrong issue”! You might be right to safeguard your kid, but the school board is more right to refuse to allow your decision to potentially infect hundreds or thousands of kids in BC and Quebec.
So why does this grind my gears? Because they put the mother’s testimony first. The opinion of a parent is not news. It’s certainly not a balance for scientific fact, and given that people tend to think of the top of the article as being more authoritative and informative, CBC seems to be suggesting that this random mom’s wacky opinion is superior to the science. It makes for a nice headline to the story: Brave Mom Fights for Child’s Rights. Here’s a better (or at least more accurate) headline: Mom Told to Live with the Consequences of Her Decision. You don’t vaccinate, you don’t get to participate.
Another thing I found interesting is that as soon as she was told there was a field trip at stake, she got her kid vaccinated right away. Where did the allergy concerns go?
Far be it from me to suggest that ideas are stupid a priori. The vaccination/autism link was certainly plausible when it first appeared on the scene. So what did we do? We tested the idea. Upon testing, we found no evidence to support it. We kept testing, trying to replicate the studies that trended positive. Again, we found no link. Once an idea has been shown to have no evidence supporting it, it then becomes stupid. Sticking to belief in a stupid idea isn’t admirable, it’s dangerous. Luckily, at least in this particular case, better-informed heads prevailed. I feel bad for the kid, but there are consequences to these decisions that the kid, and her mom, have to live with.
Battle lines have been drawn in the intellectual plains. The respective armies have gathered and are unleashing holy hell on each other. This is not the oft-referenced battle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. No this battle is much more insidious. This is a battle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Stupid.
Who are represented on these two sides? Warriors for the Forces of Good (FoG) include scientists, secular humanists, and those in all fields who make a genuine effort to be conscientious and thoughtful in all issues before picking a side.
Representing the Forces of Stupid are:
These are fights where there is a clear right and a clear wrong. Legitimate disagreement is possible when two sides have a philosophical difference when interpreting the same set of facts (most ethical dichotomies, the actual nature of subatomic physics, whether to get pizza or Chinese for dinner). In some fights, the controversy is resolved when new facts come to light that clearly define what is real, and what isn’t. Not so, in the minds of the Forces of Stupid. What is common to those on the FoS side is that they believe they know the “real truth” without taking any time to examine any evidence whatsoever.
By way of weaponry, these two opposing forces seem almost completely mismatched. The FoG use fact and reasoning as their chief weapons. They are able to craft logical, precise and nuanced arguments that cut as close to the heart of truth as is humanly possible. The FoS, on the other hand are armed simply with wild, unsupported assertions and every logical fallacy under the sun including personal attacks, erecting false equivalence, and their favourite tactic: straw men.
The difference, however, comes in to play when one examines the defensive armaments available to each side. The FoG, believing that their weaponry is so far superior to that of their opponents, use it also as their chief defense. They counter the flimsy and weak attacks of the armies of Stupid by cutting their attacks to pieces, parrying each volley of half-baked accusation and allegation with razor-sharp deductive precision, rendering their foes’ attacks harmless. The FoS, on the other hand, are shielded in an impregnable fortress of denial and lethe, first refusing to believe that their attacks have been utterly defeated and then turning around, forgetting that it happened at all, and re-launching their original, refuted, attack.
Why is this battle happening? Aside from the obvious fact that people disagree about things, and some of those things are highly important, who are these two opposing forces fighting for? In any war, those doing the actual fighting make up only a small percentage of the general population, being strongly outnumbered by civilians. This struggle is no different. There are a large number of people who are undecided on these issues, whether through benign ignorance or cautious equivocation. The more of these people either side can win over to their way of thinking, the stronger the force becomes and the more that side can sway decisions.
So why do these two forces appear to be on equal footing? Why don’t the FoS just rout their opponent, having completely dismantled their attack apparatus? The sad truth is, because people are stupid. Now, I don’t mean stupid as in unintelligent or as a necessarily pejorative term, I simply mean that the average person does not latch on to reasoned thought as being the only way to make decisions. This happens for a number of reasons – thinking is hard work, reality is more nuanced than a soundbyte can encapsulate, they are not educated enough to use logical tools (this is the biggie, in my opinion) – but at least part of it has to do with the fact that religion has elevated “faith” to be equivalent to logic. The argument is that evidence and reason are good for some things, but it’s equally valid to simply believe in something.
I posit that the FoS are able to appeal to that type of thinking. It gives people all the satisfaction of “knowing” that something is “true” without having to do any of the hard work required to establish verifiable truth. The FoS believe in their heart of hearts that what they believe is 100% un-nuanced reality and that anyone who believes differently is insane. This explains why when an argument is soundly defeated, the FoS simply shift the goalposts and say that the “real truth” is still there, it’s just a little different than they were saying before (or worse, that they’d been saying that all along, completely ignoring/forgetting their previous statements). This is absolutely because of faith-based “reasoning” – just look up Thomas Aquinas’ “proofs” of the existence of God, or any theological argument for that matter. This also explains the phenomenon of what has been called Crank Magnetism, where people who believe in one crackpot theory often believe in, and/or come to the aid of those who believe in, many other types of unsupported/unsupportable assertions and belief systems.
I’m not saying that belief is wrong. FoS foot soldiers often point out that people believe in science and then try their damnedest to forge a false equivalence between religious belief and belief in the evidence. However, these two types of belief are not the same. Scientific beliefs and tenets come from observing phenomena in the world, noting how they behave, discerning a pattern, and then drawing a conclusion (yes, I am aware that scientists often go in with a model in their minds already which can bias the conclusion, but that is the flaw of the scientist, not the science). Contrast this to religious belief, wherein the conclusions are drawn first, and evidence is tortured, teased, stretched and cajoled to fit the prescribed pattern. In scientific belief, evidence that does not fit the model is evidence that the model doesn’t explain reality well or is wrong and the model is abandoned; whereas in religious belief, evidence must be changed to fit the model, which can never be abandoned.
In order for the Forces of Good to triumph, it is necessary to take a number of steps. I will detail these in another post (as this one is already getting a bit lengthy) but they are, in brief:
The true path to winning this war is to educate the populace, since educated people are more likely and more able to use logic as a decision-making tool. Ever notice how conservatives want to gut education spending, or leave higher education only within the reach of the rich? Ever wonder why? It’s because uneducated people are where their votes come from.
This battle is far from over, but the smarter we get, the less likely we are to end up fighting for the Stupid.