Denial disguised as skepticism

I’ve noticed a new trend. There have always been people who have flat out denied science for one reason or another. Take your pick–evolution, global warming–a lot of well established scientific theories have their vehement and vocal deniers. But I’ve been taking a course on vaccines in order to improve my practice as a public health nurse, and it’s here that I’ve really seen this new trend blossom. And that’s denial masquerading as skepticism.

Denialists have no evidence to support their beliefs. Let’s get that straight right out of the gate. If there was any credible evidence against an established scientific theory then you could bet scientists would be all over that. So what do you do when you have an unsupportable belief? Well, you make your belief sound smarter. And crying “skepticism” is what a lot of these people are doing now. It’s fairly simple. A lot of people who deny the safety and efficacy of vaccines were confronted in the discussion forums of this class, and the results were…well, they went along the lines of, “I’m just saying we need to question the science. I thought skepticism was healthy in science.”

See, by couching their beliefs in skepticism, it makes their position sound more grounded, almost rational. After all, questioning things is indeed a hallmark of science. But not blind questioning.

Skepticism doesn’t come from the gut, it comes from contradictory evidence.

There’s a mountain of data and evidence going back more than fifty years that crosses all ages, all places across the globe, gender, race, etc. that says vaccines are safe and effective. This same pile of data makes it very clear that chronic diseases and things like autism are not the result of vaccination.

You could say the same thing to people who claim to be “climate change skeptics.” Mountain of evidence on one side, zero evidence on the other side. There’s no reason to be skeptical of these theories other than personal bias or misinformation, period.

I’ve screen captured some of the discussion board happenings in this class that I’m taking in order to better illustrate what this new ploy looks like. I’ve blacked out last names for the sake of respect and privacy–my responses have the name blotted out in green:

vaccine debate 1

You’ll notice in this first example that Cheryl talks about “possibility.” The old “How can you be reeeeeally suuuure?” canard. Because there’s no evidence to support your position, Cheryl, and all the evidence to support mine. Ironically, I even get called out for NOT just considering one possible cause. When I originally suggested looking at other environmental factors that have recently changed, that’s the scientific approach. But no, apparently it’s “common sense” to single out one thing and then just run blindly with that. Don’t even think about other possibilities–thinking about the big picture isn’t common sense to people who live in Cheryl’s world. But just that first bit there, introducing “possibility” into the mix, is a much gentler and pseudo-reasonable way to introduce denial.

vaccine debate 2

In this example, we get this lovely fallacy: not all experts know everything, and not all laypeople are idiots. Fair enough, but that doesn’t change the evidence, which Jenette doesn’t seem to understand. You hear this nonsense with climate change and evolution, too. “Well, not all the experts agree.” Fine, but fact isn’t dependent upon universal consensus. To be fair to Jenette, she does admit that she’s here to learn the science of vaccines, which is a step in the right direction. But there’s still this attempt to introduce denial by way of making both sides of the argument equal. The media is guilty of this sort of thing. Cable news will have Bill Nye and some congressman debating climate change on a split screen. Well, when you see a climate change denier side by side with Bill Nye, it kind of sends the message that both sides are equally legitimate. Despite the overwhelming amount of data and evidence that one side has and that’s missing from the other.

vaccine debate 3

And lastly we come to my favorite excerpt. I’ve circled Andre’s problematic statement at the top of the picture. Science does not work like Amazon customer reviews, which is the lovely analogy Andre gave us. I don’t think I really need to explain why this is wrong and patently stupid. The important point here is trying to elevate denial to the same level as established science. It’s steeped in “research.” Do your own research sounds a lot less like philosophical dislike of something. Even though, if one were to do actual scientific research, they would arrive at a conclusion different from Andre and all of the other deniers in this class: vaccines are safe and effective.

When deniers talk about “research” what they’re really talking about is watching Youtube videos from “whistleblowers” or combing through a Google search or reading a book published by someone with their own agenda. Which, obviously, is not scientific research and data. But, to another person who isn’t well versed in how science works, hearing “I did some research” might sound legitimate. It certainly sounds better than “I just feel that…”

But at the end of the day, that’s really all these so-called “skeptics” have to fall back on: feelings. Paranoia about industry and government. Anecdotal stories from third parties. Maybe they have a “study” done by a non-peer reviewed entity or person. But it doesn’t amount to anything close to actual data or evidence. They “just know” the truth. They’ll make it sound, though, as if denial is healthy. As if skepticism and denial are the same thing. Make no mistake: denying something is not the same thing as being skeptical or critical.

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7 thoughts on “Denial disguised as skepticism

  1. Great post Ryan, as frustrated as I feel about climate change “skeptics”, I think it must be more frustrating to deal with anti-vaxx people, because here is something that we understand so well, and as a result it has worked so well such that these diseases we are vaccinated against have virtually evaporated from the minds of the general public so that they don’t even know why they are getting vaccinations anymore. Maybe that’s something we should have always been doing better. Vaccinations became automatic and nobody thought about them. All of sudden people are wondering why needles are being stuck into their arm for a disease that they may never even have known someone to get and have never had themselves. Obviously it’s a false way of thinking about it, but it’s just so ironic. Because it work so well it is actually under attack.

    Once again the question boils down to people not understanding what evidence actually is. People read a few articles and blog posts on-line and all of a sudden feel like they know as much as someone who has studied and practiced in that field all their lives. It’s astounding how smart people think they are. I think skepticism can be a gut feeling, and that’s fine. If something doesn’t make sense to you, be curious about it, and ask questions. But also expect that if you really want to understand the answer yourself it may take a lot of time to really understand how something works.

  2. It’s the Ancient Aliens syndrome. I honestly believe people are being programmed to be stupid-er. Either that or modern media is simply catering to the stupid-er. I can’t watch anything on the H channel anymore, and little elsewhere.

    The R’s and the far right in general have taken this “stupid-er” thing to new heights. Either they are gaining ground, or it has always been thus, with the internet age bringing it out from under the pews, the rocks, and the backrooms.

    I’d like some tickets to a sane reality please. One way.

    1. Yessss. I hate that show. The History channel used to be my favorite network, but now it’s just filled with shows about pawn shops, Bigfoot, and aliens. Slowly all of the educational channels–TLC, discover, natgeo–have devolved into mindless and speculative schlock. Personally, I think technology has made us develop shorter and shorter attention spans.

  3. I always like when people say, “Don’t trust those researchers when money is involved… this person selling a book told me so!”

    The most worrying part is a lot of these people think they are being good skeptics. I’m mostly convinced climate denial is money and god related, but vaccine and GMO arguments are based on people, I think, trying to be good skeptics.
    If I can make an unsubstantiated claim right now, I think it’s the point you made about how opinions seem to be equal to evidence. Being able to Google a phrase and come up with legitimate looking websites convinces people that the opinion is stronger than mere opinion. To be fair, I understand why no one wants to read the source material. Journals are so boring and dry, most people rely on second hand/popularizing. They get the good “paranoia” feeling that most skeptics get, but instead of looking for evidence they look for confirmation.

  4. A lot of denial comes from fear These people fear things, so they automatically try to fight them. But it doesn’t help when you first have to educate someone before debating with them!
    Vaccines are especially irrefutable. What with the scientific evidence, the method and way vaccines work shows that they do not have negative effects. And at the end of the day it’s vaccine vs catching the disease.

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