I know, I know, you’re probably thinking to yourself “but I’m just one regular, independent, concerned mother/victim/guy who is once and for all taking a stand against Big Pharma/authority/established scientific practice- how special can I really be?”
Truly, very special.
I guess this is something I’ve noticed since my blog was reshared by a number of sceptics, and as is their right I have had a couple of anti-vaccine supporters contact me to share their unsolicited thoughts. All fine. But the nature of the contact did prompt reflection and consideration: why are they contacting me, uninformed and impotent member of the sceptic community that I am with a small reader base, no influence over the scientific community, or even any power to implement policy?
It was a question I put to a Twitter follower this morning who offered me the exciting opportunity to ‘discuss’ my vaccine views with them:
And indeed it is a sincere, mainly well-intended question that has taken me the better part of my day to parse into some form of coherent answer.
So, what is it that these people who contact us with their minds made up seek to get from the experience?
Primarily, it is the opportunity to change our mind from our previously-held pro-vaccine/EBM position, but I think it goes beyond that into the super-special: it is the notion that unlike all those other anti-vax proponents, and the millions of terabytes of ‘studies’, Youtube videos, blog posts and infographics, *they* specifically are going to be The Chosen One. The One who can penetrate through what nobody else could do by virtue of their logic, their pathos, their stunning wit, and their ‘gotcha’ moments. And I think that is true of every individual anti-vaccine, anti-chemotherapy, pro-naturopathy/homeopathy supporter that seeks out sceptics or advocates for EBM to share their remarks with. Deep down, I think they all think that they have this Edward Snowden-esque devil-may-care maverick instinct, which is kind of cute, if not frustrating.
I am not sure if it is projection on their behalf: that they assume that because they could be convinced by a random stranger sharing an emotive n+1 that somehow I too could be persuaded by those means. And they would be right if they assumed that they are somehow my peer: the truth of the situation is that I am equivalently educated and qualified with supporters of pseudoscience. I truly am. I am no less emotive, or prone to the power of persuasive speech than any other person, despite being a little more critical and on my guard. I am certainly no more educated or intelligent than them. I suspect many are deeply caring, intelligent people who succeed in their relative arenas.
But the difference here is that I make no claims to scientific authority. My blog, I hope, is firmly centred on the social, cultural and political facets of pseudoscience: how cognitive biases, societal conditioning and our own habits of consumption shape the Australian medical landscape. I find it endlessly fascinating and enjoyable to delve into why people choose altmed, or what factors cause people to abandoned well-established scientific consensus. I don’t feel like I need a tremendous scientific understanding to participate in this aspect of the dialogue, and thus far nobody has made me feel unwelcome. Well, nearly nobody.
I have explained before that I wilfully did not develop my numeracy or scientific thinking as a young person, and today I am acutely and embarrassingly aware of my own deficits. It is because of my awareness of this shortfall that I am hugely dependent on the quality and oversight of the scientific and medical community to run the best quality tests, and to use the best-trained researchers to interpret the results for me. I know it is not perfect: that funds are finite, that researchers are human and fallible, and that competing corporate priorities do sadly place the integrity of the trials process in jeopardy. But I also know it is the best we have – and it far exceeds that which is provided by the competition. Yes, it makes me a sheeple. I can hack that.
What I am being asked, when I am contacted out of the blue by pseudoscientific supporters, is to disregard dozens of years of research by people skilled, qualified and passionate about their profession (and the critical ethical and safety oversights attendant to it) in favour of simply trusting this one guy: this One Special Guy who manages to know what thousands of immunologists and researchers are too blind, or corrupt, or inexperienced to see. It is an incredible ask, and I refuse point-blank to change my mind on the basis of One Special Guy.
That is not to say I am averse to changing my mind point blank, but it would take incredibly overwhelming evidence – consisting of a shift in scientific consensus, verified and promoted by global health authorities – to do so. This would, I imagine, entail a paradigm shift in abandoning thousands of years of development of the scientific method and our current understanding of physics, chemistry, immunology, anthropology and anatomy. Not One Special Guy with a link, or a long list of semi-relevant pubmed articles – a thorough overhaul of the nature of human knowledge itself.
Two issues: firstly, there is a tremendous amount of narcissistic arrogance in asserting that you – someone who has a spectacularly high chance of not being formally educated on the subject – have more knowledge, insight and objectivity than people who are subject to the entry barriers of academia, compliance and regulation measures, performance indicators and the scrutiny of their peers. I get pretty fed up with it as a teacher whenever non-teachers intrude in my classroom (or, shudder, run professional development sessions) showing me how to do my job. Western civilisation, love it or leave it, is predicated on the notion of specialised professionalism, and that lay people believe they have an equivalent or superior understanding to those with tens of thousands of hours practice in their discipline is insulting.
Stemming from this is the second issue: I have no idea of the depth of my knowledge of immunology and science. I am interested in it, and I can grasp the desperately obvious stuff, but I am unskilled and unaware of it. And if you permit, dear reader, me to project onto you for a moment, it is highly likely statistically that you are too. It is unlikely that you have engaged in real laboratory research, or that you have every done work which was submitted to the endless scrutiny of a review board. You wouldn’t begin to know the first thing that research immunologists or cancer researchers do, which is fine, because neither do I.
So, practically, where does it leave me?
I suspect that it is supremely unlikely that I could persuade any of the diehards. I am actually not even interested in persuading them, believe it or not. I don’t seek them out and comment at their FB pages, or on their blogs. I think it is probably far more fruitful to engage in ‘inoculating’ the middle ground – those who are unexposed to the debates, or who are on the fence, or who are yet to engage seriously in the material. Hence why I comment in mainstream news sites, or Mamamia’s FB page.
And likewise, I just don’t think that it is going to be Your Special Day. Not now, not ever. I started blogging because I was so fed up with people dying, falling ill or going broke simply because they listened to that One Special Guy. That was my impetus.
I am sorry. It’s not going to be you. You can post all the anti-vaccine/paleo/Gerson/chemtrails screeds you want on my wall, and I will duly donate money to vaccine programs in your at the end of each month, as promised. But the most you’re probably going to get from me is a flippant one-line response.
It isn’t because I’m unintelligent, or unsympathetic: it is because I am, after all, a tired teacher who has various competing demands on my time and my empathy. I don’t just blog: I work, I maintain professional currency, I read, I spend time with my friends and family, I plug away at my marriage, and I write my beloved erotic fanfiction about the 1994 Australian Cricket Team. I have seen all the tired arguments, the lazy gish gallop of facile points, the linked ‘studies’ which have been interpreted… creatively, and… well, I’m just bored of them. I have stopped accepting anything less than $55 per hour for reading and responding to undeveloped, grammatically incorrect, emotive arguments, and I categorically refuse to accept this from anyone other than someone literally in Seventh Grade, because they have a developmental excuse for it, dammit, and also because they are really endearing and cute.
If you are reading this and are feeling angry or annoyed or insulted, ask yourself why you even care that I – total random who doesn’t know you or appreciate your many legitimate talents and strengths – don’t want to be persuaded by you? How does it make your life better to change my mind?
If you know I am wrong, what makes you think I am wrong? If it’s because you think I am uneducated about medicine/science/chemtrails and want to prove me wrong on that, well, go back to the start, because you’ve missed the point. If it’s because you think logically that my rationale for why people behave/act the way they do about pseudoscience is faulty, well, that’s a start for a reply. I am not infallible.
If you came here to hate-read and you had an epiphany, my real question to you is why the hell are you still being persuaded by one random, uneducated person on the internet? If your opinion is so easily swayed, then this ought prompt pause and reflection.
Today is not your lucky day and you will never be that Special Someone to me, and I hope that is the most liberating thing you will hear today.