mooney tackles the anti-vaxers. well, sort of…

February 6, 2010 — 6 Comments

Say what you will about Chris Mooney, but where he excels is in consistency. He has the same solution to just about every problem between scientists and crackpots, and he’s not afraid to suggest it again and again with absolutely no details or regard for the nature of the conflict he wants to resolve. Previously, he’s done this with the evolution/creationism manufactroversy and scientific literacy. Now, after managing not to resolve either problem and missing the fact that blaming scientists for a culture which rejects science and expertise as a manifestation of elitist snobbery doesn’t actually accomplish anything, he’s off to make friends with the anti- vaxers and implore doctors and epidemiologists to build bridges with zealots who demonize their critics as baby-eating monsters. Really, it seems that Chris is firmly committed not to learn from his past mistakes…

After profiling the anti-vaccination movement that blames vaccines for every pediatric evil in the world and their long record of conspiracy mongering, one would think that Mooney, of all people, would know full well that a negotiation with the likes of J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy and Lyn Redwood would be futile. I could argue that it would be like trying to explain the validity of evolutionary theory to someone like Ray Comfort, but Mooney has already proposed doing just that to combat creationist influence in schools. And it’s in this obliviousness that he suggests an exercise in building communicational bridges to nowhere

I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions, which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty, and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something — anything. We need to encourage moderation, and break down a polarized situation in which the anti-vaccine crowd essentially rejects modern medical research based on the equivalent of conspiracy theory thinking, even as mainstream doctors just shake their heads at [their] scientific cluelessness.

This is really classic Mooney. He proclaims that the scientific establishment seems distant and aloof and as soon as we get any kind of a consensus on anything going, there will be a huge cascade effect as those who throw temper tantrums the instant you tell them than we’re not vaccinating kids too soon or too much, or that autism may might have genetic causes, will suddenly see the light of science. It’s not going to happen. They are far too invested in their worldview and there are too many quacks and cranks making millions off selling a whole range of snake oil concoctions and remedies to “cure autism” by exploiting their fears. Autism quackery is a big business and it fuels anti-vax hysteria. Try and remove the likes of Joe Mercola or Andy Wakefield and his woo crew in Texas off their perch, and they’ll fight back with even more disinformation because they have a mortgage to pay and families to feed. Likewise, we have to admit that sometimes science is complicated and just because scientific institutions seem remote, it’s not always the scientists’ fault.

Yes, there’s always jargon, science-speak or academese standing in the way of easy explanations in almost any field of scientific research. However, not everything lends itself to an easy ten to fifteen minute explanation because some of the concepts require years of study. In my own experience, anything that has to do with AI or intelligent agents in computer science is awfully hard to condense in simple terms just because of the scope that has to be covered for a truly comprehensive discussion and each subset of AI theory has to branch out in several different directions, affecting a wide range of disciplines. That scope makes the topic exciting and very rewarding, but it can also lead to quite a bit of confusion. And topics in medicine and biology aren’t any easier to explain. Besides, if those of us either studying to be scientists or with fully fledged PhD’s could summarize everything we do and study in an afternoon or two, why would we spend so much time buried in books, tests and labs? Grad school would be over in a month instead of between two and seven years.

In any case of crankery, scientists and experts are dealing with people who formed very strong opinions on an impressive range of subject matter they know very little about. To explain to them that they have it wrong could only result in their rejection of the explanation. Instead of being used to endless critique and take it as a given that their conclusions will be debated, they take it as a deep personal insult that someone dares question a worldview they hold near and dear. Rather than listen to the experts, they’re going to be advancing their own agendas and rebelling against any skeptical thought or inquiry into their actions. To suggest otherwise, is the kind of typical Mooney argument we’ve seen in the Unscientific America debacle. His suggestions for all those involved in a big public dustup over science to sit around a campfire and sing Kumbaya, are born from a lack of consideration for the psychology of both sides and the environment from which they come, and if they really worked, he wouldn’t even have to write about militant anti-vaxers and creationists in the first place.

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  • Pierce R. Butler

    … he’s off to … implore doctors … to build bridges with zealots who demonize their critics as baby-eating monsters.

    I eagerly await his resolution of the abortion-rights debate. (nyuk, nyuk, nyuk)

    At least Mooney does stay within the bounds of science by offering falsifiable hypotheses – sort of. Has he ever stated under what conditions he would consider any of them disproven?

  • Greg Fish

    No, not really. Chris just tells everyone to have a polite and civil debate and when that doesn’t happen, he uses the failure of these respectful debates to materialize and do something substantial to push his ideas even harder, unaware that he’s actually just advocating a kind of golden mean fallacy.

    When writing about science, Mooney understands the role of peer-review and that all views don’t necessarily have a middle ground. Some are blatantly false while others are irrefutably right. But his biggest problem is working on the assumption that if you get a denialist to a agree on just one thing, the rest of his/her objections will just melt away, and that you can do all this just by being nice and friendly.

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    “In any case of crankery, scientists and experts are dealing with people who formed very strong opinions on an impressive range of subject matter they know very little about. To explain to them that they have it wrong could only result in their rejection of the explanation. Instead of being used to endless critique and take it as a given that their conclusions will be debated, they take it as a deep personal insult that someone dares question a worldview they hold near and dear. ”

    I don’t think this was what you intended, but as I read this I heard Chris Mooney being described to a “T.” I’m wondering if it will ever occur to him that he has no experience or background in what he proposes, that there is no body of evidence that it works, and that he really shouldn’t be espousing it until he’s performed at least some rudimentary tests on the subject.

    What’s most amazing to me is that he has never tumbled onto the idea that if the antagonists in these controversial subjects were able to be reached by reasonable discourse, the controversy would never have occurred in the first place. Mooney seems to want to blame scientists for assuming that their entire audience was reasonable and logical, then suggest that to correct this the scientists should treat their audience as if it is reasonable and logical. You have to marvel at that kind of naivete, but taking him seriously is well-nigh impossible.

  • http://sarahaskew.net Sarah

    So if you don’t agree with Mooney’s suggestion, what do you think is the right way to counter anti-vax arguments? Nothing seems to be working.

  • Greg Fish

    …what do you think is the right way to counter anti-vax arguments?

    I don’t know if there’s a right way to counter arguments that are not even wrong. Now, we should address them with clear, scientific information because there are people who honestly don’t know who to trust and they need to be given legitimate information backed by real medicine. But the devoted anti-vaxers simply will not listen. They have a rare combination of training and devotion, sometimes a very lucrative devotion, that makes them deaf to facts.

    So to counter their arguments in public, we need to point out that while they complain about censorship of their views in the media, call doctors and science bloggers who debunk their claims Big Pharma cronies, and plead that we think of the children, they are actually total hypocrites. Most anti-vax groups reverently shill for shameless and dangerous quacks who torture children with pseudoscientific “cures,” censor virtually all dissent from their blogs, and will employ ridiculous double standards when they evaluate the efficacy of medical treatments vs. random quackery.

    Parents need to be aware that behind all this concern for autistic children lies a huge snake oil market that uses children like guinea pigs and the only proof that any of the treatments inflicted on them work, are testimonials from parents who are thousands of dollars a month poorer and who haven’t a clue of how the immune system works.

  • http://scientificilliteracy.blogspot.com Michael Varney

    I consider Mooney to be one of those ball-less people, who when watching two people arguing a topic, butts in with a “Lets just agree to disagree” platitude. Passive aggressive as all get out, and will make snide comments towards those who they disagree with while at the same time attempting to be non-judgmental and conciliatory and the “peace maker”.

    Seems like Mooney does not have the strength of conviction to take a stand and defend it. At least man crackpots and nutters, even though they are woefully ignorant (and in some cases just plain stupid) at least will stick to their guns and give their honest opinion. And the best of scientists will defend their points vigorously… until they are presented with evidence that contradicts them.

    Mooney is just a suckup.