“Why don’t we just listen to the experts, regarding vaccines?”

A friend proposed the following:  “I have a revolutionary idea. I know it will probably seem a bit “out there” for the general American public, but here goes:
When it comes to discussing important issues (like vaccines, education, climate change, healthcare, etc.), why don’t we start making a habit out of listening to the folks who actually have expertise in these fields rather than politicians and/or “celebrities”?
What do you say folks?”
That really got me thinking.
It’s a “reasonable” suggestion, but perhaps the problem and/or solution is more complex:

1. Appeal to authority or expertise is a fallacious argument, on its own.

2. The example of institutions abusing their authority leaves MANY people rightfully fearful of automatically placing faith in those deemed authoritative. (See Catholic Church, Magdalene Sisters, Pedophile Priests).  Or, as I heard a black panelist on Larry Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show” say recently, “Every time I see news that some government study proves something, I think Tuskegee.”

3. Scammers co-opt authority to appear more credible, undermining the overall credibility of those “experts” who are NOT scamming. This can be a Jenny McCarthy, or even “real” scientists working for Philip Morris, or “clean coal.”  The underlying problem here is one of sorting wheat from chaff; separating the Jenny McCarthys from the Linus Paulings is one thing, but asking the average citizen to be able to sort two seemingly reputable scientists for the most true answer is daunting.

4. Even authoritative organizations fall and add to the problem: the English Journal of Medicine publishing Andrew Wakefield’s paper 15 years ago WAS an authoritative source of “good science”, so people initially listened to an expert…we’re just having an incredibly hard time putting the Genie back in the bottle in the vaccine case.
Why?  Because the Genie in the MMR/Wakefield case actually granted the wish of parents of autistic children seeking some answer, ANY answer to their pain: here is an explanation. Here is someone to blame.
And it’s pretty tough to get people to give up “wish-thinking that comforts them, or gives outlet to their need for an answer.
Tough, tough, tough problem: how do you get people to form rational, justifiable beliefs, and how do you get hem to give up deeply held, comforting irrational beliefs?  How do you convince them that YOUR idea is a good one they should hold and act upon?
Why don’t we “just listen to the experts?”  Because of defective belief forming and “belief reconsideration” mechanisms… and I don’t have a full answer for how to overcome these human blind spots.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s