Why People Believe Falsities About Vaccines

An Interview with Lee McIntyre

By Guillaume A.W. Attia (Editor-In-Chief)

September 10, 2015          Picture: National Institutes of Health/Flickr

This article is part of The Critique’s September 2015 Issue on Vaccines, Belief & Autonomy.

“All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as being self-evident” Arthur Schopenhauer

I. Introduction

A 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Centre and the American Association for The Advancement of Science revealed a worrying misalignment between the beliefs of scientists and the general population, concerning major issues such as the health risks associated with genetically modified foods, the viability of Darwinian evolution as a theory of human origins, and the influence of human beings on climate change. According to this study, 31% of the American public believes that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of creaturely life, 57% that GMO foods are unsafe for consumption, and 50% that there is no conclusive evidence for man-driven global warming. Alan Leshner, The Chief Executive of the AAAS responded to this disconnect by explaining that what accounts for these differences is “simply a lack of understanding”. “Sometimes it’s an economic or a politicial issue, and sometimes it’s a conflict between, say, core religious belief, or core values, and what science is showing, (…) In all of these cases, science is being trumped by these other factors and scientists need to do something to turn that around.” He went on to clarify that “It’s not about whether the public is dumb or not. It’s partly a function of the American educational system that does a terrible job … at educating young people in science, math and technology”.

If the problem is not a lack of intelligence on the part of the Americans surveyed but rather an ignorance of the current scientific consensus on these matters, then it would indeed seem that the plain solution to this scientific illiteracy is greater public exposure to the rigors of a scientific education. Unfortunately, if we are to believe what the social sciences show about human nature, this strategy is likely to achieve only a modicum of success. As Lee McIntyre, a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, has argued in his new book “Respecting Truth (Routledge, 2015)”, sometimes even repeated exposure to reliable and publicly available scientific data is not enough to convince some people to change their minds, and adopt demonstrably true beliefs. He explains in a furiously debated article at The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Humans have always held some wrongheaded beliefs that were later subject to correction by reason and evidence. But we have reached a watershed moment, when the enterprise of basing our beliefs on fact rather than intuition is truly in peril…There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth”. As we can imagine from the above passage, this “willful ignorance”, whereby “we refuse to consider new data because nothing could convince us to abandon what we already believe” [p.2 Respecting Truth], has been exercised by humanity for as long as there has been recorded history. However, nowhere in the political scene of the last decade has this phenomenon been observed more puzzlingly than in the incorrigible American vaccine controversy of the past three years.

In an article for the The New Yorker, contributing writer Maria Konnikova, reported the findings of an eye-opening 2014 study conducted by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan. Professor Nyhan and his colleagues, including pediatricians and other political scientists, set out to examine the lives of 2000 parents with kids under the age of 17. The study was undertaken in order to determine if exposure to various pro-vaccination campaigns from respected sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could produce more positive beliefs about vaccines. Shockingly, but not surprisingly if one reads Professor McIntyre’s book, none of the evidence presented changed the parents’ negative views about vaccines. In fact, this marshaling of data, stories and images, resulted in a greater unwillingness from the staunchest anti-vaccine parents to vaccinate their kids. This human tendency to hold on more strongly to one’s convictions after being presented with threatening & falsifying information is known in the scholarly literature as “the backfire effect”; one of many psychological foibles highlighted by Professor McIntyre in his account of human irrationality. Professor Nyhan found the results of his study “depressing”—- an attitude that has grown increasingly severe in some scientific circles, as more baffled scientists are forced to grapple with the disillusionment of believing that the dutiful presentation of evidence will be enough to turn the public tide towards correct scientific beliefs and helpful policy proposals. Thankfully, despite the cognitive limitations that complicate the attainment of widespread respect for truth, Professor McIntyre provides us with sources of great hope for the future: the scientific enterprise, as well as philosophy and logic (to name a few). In this sense, Respecting Truth is itself a contribution to this tough-minded optimism: It employs the rigors of logic & the wisdom of philosophical thinking to help us not only understand why people believe falsities about crucial issues like vaccination, this despite the overwhelming evidence showing no link to autism, but also how to ensure we are better prepared to respect truth at a time in human history when our collective wellbeing depends on it. The following questions are intended as an introduction to some of the issues and concerns addressed by Professor McIntyre in Respecting Truth. For a proper grasp of the fascinating intricacies of the cultural battle for truth, purchase Respecting Truth either directly through Taylor & Francis, or via Amazon.

II. Questions

[1] Thank you for participating in this interview Professor McIntyre. I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to get your feedback on some of the questions that are central to your timely work. To start us off, I’d like to pick up on a remark you made in the opening chapter of Respecting Truth (RT from now on) about the nature of knowledge. You state on page. 2 that “The real enemy of truth is not ignorance, doubt, or even disbelief. It is false knowledge. When we profess to know something even in the face of absent or contradicting evidence, that is when we stop looking for truth”. Two questions in relation to that: First, what constitutes genuine knowledge and secondly, how can we separate it from “false knowledge”?

McIntyre: It’s probably not surprising that there is furious philosophical debate over what constitutes genuine knowledge, but one famous answer is that knowledge is “justified true belief.” Now some might think this is cheating because it’s got the word “true” in it and how can we ever establish this outside of some epistemology? We’re chasing our tail a bit here. But for me the important thing is the concept of “justification.” I believe it is possible to respect truth, even when we believe something that is false. Respecting truth does not necessarily mean that one has truth in hand; some people have misunderstood the title of my book to mean that I think science has discovered the truth. Instead what I’m advocating is that science is a reliable method. Its claims are justified. Science has worked over time to get us closer to the truth. It may not get us completely there – maybe nothing can – but then the question becomes whether we are engaging in a rational process in the pursuit of truth and this is where I think science shines.

Let’s look at an example. Newton had beliefs about gravity that turned out to be false, but he still respected truth. His beliefs weren’t true, but they were rational because they were justified by good evidence. Science does not guarantee truth. In fact scientific claims are always tentative, because they are subject to further evidence that could overturn them. Some people take this to mean that we shouldn’t believe anything scientists have to say because they aren’t “certain,” but this is to misunderstand science. To the people who believe that knowledge requires certainty here’s my question: have you got a more reliable method?

I think there is a real danger with denialists these days who pretend that they know better than science: that there are other methods – like gut instinct or intuition – that are more likely to lead to truth. This is very unlikely. And this brings in the problem of false knowledge too, because if you buy into the idea that we can just trust our gut then it makes us lazy. False knowledge happens when we are so sure that something is true that we don’t even need evidence. But that method is unreliable. Even if you get lucky and guess right sometimes, it isn’t knowledge. Knowledge requires justification. You can’t just be right, you have to have the evidence to show you are right. That’s how you respect truth.

[2] You also mention at the beginning of the book, the influence of Socrates in shaping philosophical ideas about knowledge. You say for example: “Even though the goal of philosophy is to find truth, Socrates customarily professes ignorance”. Today, there are those who on the one hand, profess to know truths about the world, and others who profess to be ignorant of them. In your work you explain that it is possible not only for both sides to be mistaken, but also to be guilty of disrespecting truth. How can this be?

McIntyre: If you claim to know the truth you can still disrespect it because maybe you haven’t followed a reliable method. If you claim to be ignorant of the truth you might disrespect it by being too lazy to look. People lie, mislead, feign ignorance, stick their head in the sand, cherry pick examples….there are lots of ways to disrespect truth.

Again let’s go back to the concept of justification. To anyone who claims that they know the truth about the world, the first thing I want to know is how they know that they do. What is their evidence? But there is a similar problem for those who are willfully ignorant, because they are not even trying. The goal of respecting truth is to elevate and pursue those methods of gathering knowledge that have the best track record of producing reliable beliefs. Even if we fall short of actually discovering the truth (because perhaps nothing can), we have respected truth by respecting the methods that are most likely to lead to it.

[3] The idea that the objective of philosophy is the discovery of truth is bound to be problematic for people who think the concept of truth is not only logically incoherent, but mythical. How would you respond to both charges?

McIntyre: This is going to get pretty philosophical, but here is my answer. Remember Socrates believed that the point of philosophy was to pursue the truth even though he thought we could never get there in this lifetime. Now that is based on some pretty questionable metaphysical beliefs about the doctrine of recollection and the immortality of the soul that most people (like me) don’t believe these days. But there is an important idea contained here, which is that even if we cannot discover the truth and know it is the truth, it is a noble goal to pursue this. And this I believe is what science does. People who misunderstand science often believe that you have to have 100% certainty, because a theory has been “proven” for us to know the truth. But this is not what science does. Science pursues the truth by examining evidence and testing it against reality so that we can make our theories better. Perhaps we approach the truth, but can we ever be sure that we’ve reached it? Maybe not. In science, this is because (as I said in response to a previous answer) science is always tentative; new evidence can always come along and overthrow even the most solid theory, as it did with Newton. But science is still reliable and still pursuing the truth because we are always getting closer. Now, there is another even deeper idea here that comes from epistemology, which may shed a little more light on the situation. It’s that “truth” is a combination of the facts about reality and the human point of view of the knower. This is because we can never know reality in and of itself except as described in a vocabulary, configured in a theory. And this means that there are many potential truths, because there are many potential descriptions. Even one reality can support alternative truths about it. This is not relativism, but pluralism. I believe that a true theory is one that works based on our descriptions of reality. But there can be other descriptions.

[4] Most people think, including some academic philosophers, that to talk about truth is essentially to talk about propositions or assertions corresponding to established facts in the world. However, some people think that truth is either defined by the degree to which it coheres with world we experience, is entirely relative to context, or a useful tool for our social or political purposes. To what extent will these divergent perspectives on the nature of truth affect an individual’s respect for truth?

McIntyre: I believe it is possible to respect truth even if we have different understandings of what truth means. The contrast I draw in my book is between those who respect truth and those who are willfully ignorant. If you are willfully ignorant, then you are someone who perhaps suspects that there is truth out there, but you refuse to look for it or believe any evidence that is presented to you by other people, because you think that you already know without investigation what is true. That is not respecting truth because it is not respecting the methods by which true beliefs are formed. But make no mistake based on my “pluralist” perspective from a previous answer: I think that a true theory has to be consistent with reality. If the evidence refutes our theory, it’s done. If our description is not accurate, we need another. People who use truth solely for social or political purposes – which is to say that they are bending it based on what they want to believe – are not respecting truth. If they use reliable methods and then want to use it for social or political purposes (for example to gather facts about capital punishment because they want to support a better policy on capital punishment), however, then godspeed.

[5] In order to respect a correspondence theory of truth, one must be inclined to believe that there are objective facts about the world, that exist “out-there”, outside our minds, independently of whether anyone exists or is sufficiently conscious about their existence to identify these truths. However, there are people who suspect that the human brain is unable to locate truths in the universe. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga, for example, has argued in an attempt to highlight the tension between evolution & naturalism, that if we were to accept the purely naturalistic/godless view of our evolutionary history, we would be confronted with the probability of debilitating skepticism about the world, since it appears that our physical brains are the bi-product of a mindless process aimed at successful reproduction rather than truth. Are our cognitive faculties reliable? How would you respond to this challenge from evolutionary psychology?

McIntyre: There is no guarantee that the brains which result from the process of evolution by natural selection are wired up to discover truth. I have an entire chapter on this in my book. But this does not mean that the human mind cannot be used to discover truth, any more than to say that because we are not born knowing ethics, it’s impossible to learn it. And if the human brain is not able to locate truths in the universe, then how in the world did we invent the internal combustion engine or send a rocket into space?

[6] Let’s say we agree that our cognitive faculties are generally reliable, how would you then respond to those who say that the cumulative findings of extensive social science research on human cognitive biases such as confirmation bias or motivated reasoning, demonstrate that the respect for truth is an unrealistic (and unfair) expectation for human beings?

McIntyre: Respect is something we learn. We are not necessarily born with it. Despite all of our cognitive biases and deficits, we can train ourselves to do amazing things, especially with the help of others to correct our mistakes. Research has shown that human reason works especially well in crowds: you can give a group of people a logic puzzle to solve and they will solve it, even though none of them individually could have gotten the right answer. And remember that we’ve done this in the past! The same limited, biased minds that we have lately discovered with social science are the same ones that discovered and defended the heliocentric universe. And that certainly required respect for truth! Perhaps there will be a lot of hard work involved, but respecting truth is well within the capacities of the human brain.

[7] Some point, as you have done above, to the spectacular success of the scientific enterprise as providing good reasons to think our cognitive faculties are probably reliable. We have all (though unwittingly for some) witnessed or been beneficiaries of the achievements of science, yet many of us struggle to understand its nature, operation and limitations. Critics of certain established scientific ideas, will often dismissively announce that such-and-such is just a “theory” not “fact”. In RT you state that “No scientific theory, no matter how well corroborated by the evidence, can ever be proven absolutely true. Not even gravity”. Doesn’t that feed into the skepticism of the critics?

McIntyre: Yes, it is unfortunately true that when we air our inductivist laundry in public, it can be used against us by denialists. But note that if someone is going to be that “skeptical” they had better be prepared to give up a lot of other things that they would probably like to believe as well, like the fact that the Earth is a sphere, rather than flat. If we take seriously the idea that NO THEORY can ever be certain, we have to ask ourselves what comes next. Should we give up on science? No, because what replaces it. What can do better? There is a vast difference between skepticism and denialism. Skeptics are prepared to say what evidence would convince them. Denialists tend not to do that, and instead insist on 100% certainty for the things they do not want to believe. But just look at the other side of the coin. What is their standard of evidence for the things that they do want to believe? It is a curious fact that most folks who claim to be waiting for “better evidence” before they believe in climate change probably already believe without evidence that there is a vast world-wide conspiracy of scientists who are hyping the data on global warming. But that isn’t skepticism, it’s the height of gullibility.

[8] Some readers might be uncomfortable with the idea of a tentative enterprise subject to overhaul if better evidence is presented. One often suspects that this discomfort is rooted in a Cartesian desire to know the truth with certainty. Is there a place for absolute ironclad truth in the world? How should we approach our uneasiness about the probabilities naturally attached to science?

McIntyre: The only ironclad truths I can think of are ones that are deductively valid, which is to say they are true because we have defined them that way, and those aren’t very interesting. When we are dealing with truths about the empirical world, there is always the possibility of error. When you are talking about the heliocentric universe, you are talking about a vanishingly small probability of error, but yes, the possibility exists. I can’t help it that people might be uncomfortable with that. But what is the alternative? Descartes tried to pare back all of his beliefs until he reached an indubitable core, and still he muffed it. After establishing first person mental states, he immediately took a wrong turn when he had to invent a deity to validate his sensory beliefs. This is what comes of making a fetish of certainty. I would rather be uncertain and follow a reliable method, than entertain a delusion of certainty provided by some ideology.

[9] Complaints have mounted over the years, especially following the emergence of the new atheism movement in the U.S, about the excesses of so-called “scientism”. The issue seems to be that some scientists are failing to recognize the very real limitations of science; particularly its inability to ground morality, encompass aesthetic experiences and by definition, solve metaphysical puzzles. What do you make of these claims?

McIntyre: I think that worries about scientism are overblown. Claims about scientism go all the way back to F. A. Hayek (if not before) and seem to get recycled whenever we become too worried about the success of science. I do think it is possible that science can overstep. There are some questions that cannot be settled through empirical evidence. Indeed, I think there are probably some truths about the world that cannot be discovered by science. But the problem is that we often don’t know this until we try. Can you be certain a priori that there is no scientific basis for morality? I can’t. Still it is embarrassing to watch naturalists stumble around in a subject matter where they are obviously missing the point. The possibility of an afterlife is a good example. I believe there is a truth about what happens to us after we die. But the facts are undiscoverable on this side of mortality, which means that they cannot be discovered by science. Now can they be discovered by anything else? Probably not. And this is why I claimed in RT that this is a prime case for agnosticism (rather than atheism) about an afterlife, because there just is no conceivable evidence. But are aesthetic claims like this? How about claims about consciousness? I have no idea. But why believe that science cannot take a shot? If it fails, and other methods can do better, then have at it.

[10] I mentioned earlier that one of the lines of attack on the effort to respect truth is an ironic reliance on the findings of social science. In light of the recent replication problems in the field of psychology, is there any reason to rethink the credibility of social science research?

McIntyre: The reproducibility of scientific results is a cornerstone of good science. It is an enormous problem that social scientific results have failed to live up to this standard to the same degree as their natural scientific brethren, and the consequences of this are completely predictable: people don’t trust social science. For years, social scientific studies have been dismissed because anyone can find five studies which show that immigration is a net drag on the economy and five which show that it is a net plus. With more focus on data sharing and replication, these kinds of problems should dissipate. Over the years, social science has suffered from cherry picking data, curve fitting, subjective bias in performing experiments, and other methodological sins. But do we have reason to suppose that it cannot do better? I hope not, because there are examples of other sciences which once were just as bad off as psychology and they turned the corner. The prime example here is medicine. One hundred years ago medicine was a pastiche of folk wisdom, gut instinct, and trial and error. Now it is a modern miracle. What made the difference? Data sharing, peer review, and double blind clinical trials. This gets to the heart of something I call the “scientific attitude,” which is when one cares about empirical evidence and is willing to change one’s theory on the basis of it. Without this, one cannot do science. Medicine didn’t used to have this attitude, then it did. I think the same transformation is now underway in social science. Indeed, in RT I tell what I think is a compelling story about the methodological revolution of behavioral economics. Right now the failure to replicate some psychological experiments is an embarrassment. But maybe the discovery of this problem is the first step in becoming more scientific. Until someone drains the swamp, we don’t know what’s buried in it.

[11] One area of American life that might reasonably benefit from the insights of both physical and social science research is the field of politics. Although the Republican party is popularly known for its belittlement of science, you point out in RT that both liberals & conservatives have been guilty of disrespecting the truth. In the case of vaccines for example, you state in your contribution to The Critique exclusive on childhood vaccination that “if we drill a bit deeper into the vaccine debate, we notice an interesting fact. Unlike resistance to scientific findings about climate change and evolution, belief in the idea that childhood vaccines may be linked to autism (based on research that has now been discredited) has for the most part been bipartisan”. How is this so?

McIntyre: I can’t really explain why it is so other than to observe that it is so. References to the literature and polling data are in the book. A lot of people might wish it were an easier story to tell, where we could just blame willful ignorance on one particular political ideology, but it doesn’t seem to be like that. This isn’t to say that for certain beliefs – like evolution or climate change – there isn’t a partisan difference. There is and it’s huge. It’s just to say that not all beliefs are like this. Vaccine denialism is one example. I discuss others in the book. For years people have been searching for that elusive “liberal” example of science denial; some think they have found it in the GMO debate. I don’t know enough about this to have included it as an example of science denial in the book, but in any case I’ve yet to see any convincing polling data which suggests that this is an overwhelmingly “liberal” myth (if it is one). The conclusion, I guess, is that willful ignorance can hit any of us; we have to be vigilant. When our favorite beliefs are challenged by science, we have to be absolutely certain that we are listening to the data, whether we are liberal or conservative.

[12] You criticize the conglomerate media—especially in its coverage of the vaccine issue—for upholding a false sense of objectivity. Can you explain what you mean by that?

McIntyre: In the book, I take issue with the tactics of some media outlets that try to demonstrate objectivity by relentlessly showing “both sides” of any issue, even when there are really NOT two sides. When CNN puts a renowned climate scientist on a split screen alongside a climate change denier, and then lets them talk as if they were equals, this is the heart of the problem. It is misleading to the public and probably the source of their confusion over whether scientists have reached consensus on the truth of anthropogenic climate change (which they have). It doesn’t help when the commentator then pronounces the issue “controversial” and cuts to a commercial. They can do better than this. Journalistic objectivity does not mean simply telling both sides of the story; it means not allowing oneself to be biased in the pursuit of the truth! A happy example of what can happen when the media does its job better is how the vaccine “controversy” suddenly disappeared from the airwaves over the summer of 2015. After the measles outbreak at Disneyland, the media seemed to realize that their callow indecision was actually causing public harm. So they got to it. They stopped the nonsense of pretending that the AMA and Jenny McCarthy had equally valid points of view. And once they did that, public belief shifted and vaccination rates started to rise.

[13] Finally, given the realities of our cognitive limitations and the insufficiently critical cultural climate in which we live, how can we address the disrespect for truth in society?

McIntyre: By never taking it for granted that reason will win. For all its success, science is fragile. The dark ages happened once and they can happen again. Willful ignorance must be challenged. There is no such thing as a claim too stupid to refute. If we (and by this I mean also we philosophers) don’t stand up for reason, who will? At the very least we can witness ignorance. We can call people out. We may never convince someone to give up his or her beliefs, but we can at the very least try to show them up in public. One of the claims in my book is that disrespecting truth may start innocuously as wishful thinking, then migrate to ideology. If it remains unchallenged, it can then metastasize into full blown disrespect. But by then it is usually too late.

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Lee McIntyre

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