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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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April 15, 2014

Sweet Reason Lands On Its Face

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Posted by Derek

This study has implications for many fields of science where its practitioners keep running into rumor and conspiracy theories. The authors tried several different means to increase the uptake of the MMR vaccine (information about the lack of connection with autism, information about the severity of the diseases being pervented, case histories of children who'd had them, and so on), and compared them to see if anything helped with parent who were skeptical of having their children vaccinated.

You can probably guess: none of these helped at all. In fact, several of the interventions appeared to make things even worse, reinforcing beliefs in the dangers of vaccination. There's a general principle at work here, which I've heard stated as "You can't use reason to talk someone out of a position that they didn't arrive at by reason". It's the wrong tool for the job, like using a screwdriver to pull nails. I'd also note that people who are suspicious of vaccines are also likely to be alert to signs that someone is trying to convince them otherwise, and will react accordingly. They know that their position is a minority one - that's part of the attraction, in many cases.

"Here, read this pamphlet from the CDC" is a strategy with no hope whatsoever of working. The case-history approach was probably a better idea, but just the fact that it's coming from some official medical source is enough, in these cases, to discredit it completely. That's what they want you to think. In the context of this blog, I run into this sort of thinking most often in the form of "Big Pharma doesn't want to cure anything", or even "Big Pharma knows how to cure cancer, but doesn't want to tell anyone because it would hurt their profits". The only way I've ever made any headway with that one (and it hasn't been very often) is when I've had a chance to go one-on-one with a believer. Looking someone in the eye and asking them if they really are accusing me of watching some of my family members die from diabetes, cancer, and heart disease while I was hiding the cures and collecting my paycheck is an uncomfortable conversation, but I've had it a few times. The only counterattack has been that no, they're not saying that I personally have these things in my desk drawer, it's the higher-ups, you know, them. "So how have I been working on these diseases for 25 years without rediscovering any of these cures?" I ask, and that generally winds things up. But I like to think (or to kid myself) that I've planted a slight seed of doubt.

You need as much conviction in your voice as the quacks have, though, and that's not easy, because they have a lot. Science has the evidence on its side, naturally, and that's a lot, but conspiracy theorists and their friends have something to believe in, and that's a very strong part of human nature indeed. It is not satisfied by contemplating charts or tables; it does not find fulfillment in double-blinded trials. It provides a ward against fear, the comfort of knowing secrets that others don't, and a fellowship of like-minded believers. In many cases, when you're trying to persuade someone out of these views, you're not just trying to argue a specific point - you're trying to talk them out of an entire worldview. CDC pamphlets don't stand a chance.

Comments (41) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil


1. Curious Wavefunction on April 15, 2014 7:29 AM writes...

The problem is that naysayers can expand their "circle of belief" to assimilate whatever reasonable argument you are advancing into the fold of their purported "conspiracy". If you show them a study demonstrating no link between vaccines and autism for instance, they will simply assume that you are part of the pharma-government-military-advertising complex and are deliberately spreading misinformation.

That's why you can almost never win. In fact you can seldom even break even.

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2. johnnboy on April 15, 2014 7:33 AM writes...

What would really be interesting is a large-sample psychologic study of people who don't believe in vaccines,to see which personality traits correlate with this disbelief. Logically, one would think that the most important factor would be lack of education - but I think that's too simple; acquaintances of mine who both have veterinary degrees decided not to vaccinate their kids (who then got whooping cough). There must be something that causes certain people to doubt and others to trust in what authorities tell them; if that was better understood, it might help in devising better educational strategies.

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3. Stu West on April 15, 2014 7:35 AM writes...

I'm pretty sure I would be sceptical if I received literature on the social benefits of travelling by automobile from the Association of Car Manufacturers, but I don't think that makes me unreasonable. Not that pamphlets from the CDC are the same thing, but I can well imagine how people might think they are.

One of the many things I learned from too many years spent reading science fiction is that "true communication is only possible between equals" and I think that figures in here.

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4. p on April 15, 2014 7:44 AM writes...

A big problem with science or scientists as policymakers is that the crux of science is skepticism, especially of oneself. In the scientific method, one is supposed to try to prove one's ideas wrong. Yet, in policy, the idea is to prove you're right, using any means necessary.

So, if a scientist argues with an anti-vaxxer, the anti-vaxxer will hold fast to their principles regardless of data, while the scientist, if even unconciously, is skeptical even of their own position. It results in a debate mismatch even though the scientist has a vast lead on points.

If we could train everyone to be as skeptical of themselves as a scientist is supposed to be, the world would be a better place. It really is a powerful method for discovering truth. But it's a lousy debate strategy.

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5. Nick K on April 15, 2014 7:49 AM writes...

Arguing with conspiracy theorists is completely fruitless. By definition one cannot rebut or discredit their ideas. Their mental universe is absolutely disjoint with the intellectual universe of logic and evidence.

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6. Justin on April 15, 2014 8:05 AM writes...

"More study of pro-vaccine messaging is needed."

That's funny. So now that we've spent more time and money disproving the anti-vax claims, now we've got to study how best to get that message through their skulls . . . this could take a while.

FWIW, it is unlikely that you're ever going to change someone's opinion on something, such as religion, politics, or Red Sox vs. Yankees, so it's not worth the energy trying.

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7. jrftzgb on April 15, 2014 8:07 AM writes...

I think part of the problem is that we as scientists speak in data and statistics. The average person deals in anecdote (I saw Paul Krugman try to claim that anecdote is the singular of data but that's another story). When you come to me with statistically significant data to back up an argument, and I can read and understand that data, as a scientist I am trained (and somewhat hard wired) to at least listen to it and evaluate the data. Your average person isn't trained to, and frankly probably lacks the understanding of statistics to really evaluate the data.

I think it's British Columbia who has started fighting anecdote with anecdote. In their public service announcements they are telling the story of families who have lost children to diseases that vaccines can prevent.

This goes to a different argument, are we as scientists effective at communicating our findings with the general public. I don't think we are, I also don't think we take the time to learn to.

My other argument, and this is more up my alley as a science and math education consultant these days, is that high school curriculum needs to change. I would argue instead of focusing more on calculus in high school, we should be focusing more on stats and data literacy. While calculus prep is important for several University majors, almost everyone these days is confronted by statistics and needs the ability to look at them and understand them.

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8. pessinnest on April 15, 2014 8:07 AM writes...

Just because as position can be described (externally) using rational terms does not mean it was arrive at that way.

At the end of the day the difficulty is a deep one: Is there a rational response to an irrational position? Or, alternatively: How can use reason to answer a question that exists outside of reason?

Without a solution to this even 'successes', just move most people from one appeal to an absolute to another.

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9. Cato the Elder on April 15, 2014 8:13 AM writes...

No one under 30 reads pamphlets anymore.

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10. Esteban on April 15, 2014 8:40 AM writes...

I'm no proponent of big gov't, but sometimes the greater public good has to trump. Most public schools require vaccinations to enroll I believe, so that's a good start. Off the top of my head, I would have no problem with child endangerment laws applying to parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids.

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11. New Tactician on April 15, 2014 8:40 AM writes...

A few weeks ago at a local moms and kids party, I started using a new tactic, shunning.

When I learned that my daughter's classmate was un-vaccinated and in attendance at the party, I quietly asked the educated and financially secure mother if her children were vaccinated. When she loudly and proudly said no, I explained that I don't allow my children into homes where there are guns, illegal drugs, or un-vaccinated children.

I excused myself to her and the reality-based hosts, who were obviously having second thoughts about their invitation list (zealous scientists vs. zealous Luddites?), and left with kids in tow.

I'm not sure what will happen in this social circle, but as with my decision to never let bigoted statements go un-addressed, I feel pretty good about this strategy.

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12. A Nonny Mouse on April 15, 2014 8:51 AM writes...

Here in the UK, the GPs get paid according to their vaccination rates and, so, have an incentive to get as many done as possible. This pushes the burden down the chain a bit.

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13. emjeff on April 15, 2014 8:54 AM writes...

#7 is onto something - fight emotional responses with emotions...

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14. The Iron Chemist on April 15, 2014 9:26 AM writes...

"Yeah, we've got a cure for cancer, but surely there's no money in that..."

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15. Gil Roth on April 15, 2014 9:26 AM writes...

Maybe they should show the scene from The Third Man where Calloway brings Holly Martin to the infant meningitis ward.

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16. MTK on April 15, 2014 9:34 AM writes...

I was at a bar once when a woman sat down next to me and asked what I did. I replied I was an organic chemist. She asked what kind of work I did and when I said I worked for a pharma company her reply was "I'm sure you're pretty smart. You ought to put those smarts to doing something good."

I had had a couple (OK, maybe more than a couple), and told her that I hoped she wasn't wasting a position that did good at the expense of someone with more smarts than her. (That was the gist, at least.)

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17. Anonymous on April 15, 2014 9:40 AM writes...

Well at least Jenny McCarthy, the most vocal celebrity proponent of the anti-vaccination movement seems to be backtracking:

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18. lol on April 15, 2014 10:22 AM writes...

@11 New Tactician

I support you 100%. When you have children you have to speak up and protect them as you are doing.

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19. expr on April 15, 2014 10:42 AM writes...

Dan kahan
has been studying this:
1. positions are more determined by your social circle so the strategyof shunning may help in this case
2. more "scientifically literate" people are more likely to use their knowledge to support their position

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20. Dr. Manhattan on April 15, 2014 10:48 AM writes...

"Yeah, we've got a cure for cancer, but surely there's no money in that…"
We also have here in Area 51 the following: aliens (three kinds!) and the flying discs they arrived in.

Seriously, this is a sad commentary on the state of misinformation that makes me question whether this is truly the Information Age.

Well, gotta go; I'm having coffee with Amelia Earhart...

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21. newnickname on April 15, 2014 11:01 AM writes...

@7 Krugmann story: I actually have these quotes from the frontispiece of ES Levine, "Applying Analytics, An Intro", 2014.

“The plural of anecdote is data.” – Raymond Wolfinger

“Data is not the plural of anecdote.” – Roger Brinner

I guess that settles it.

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22. Doug Steinman on April 15, 2014 12:38 PM writes...

Why should we expect the vaccine objectors to be any more reasonable than the Creationists? As scientists we expect others to change their opinions when we present data that show that they are wrong. However, when you are dealing with groups who know that they are right even though they have nothing that supports that position, you will be fighting a losing battle if you try to convince them that they are wrong.

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23. dearieme on April 15, 2014 1:15 PM writes...

It's no help, mind, that great chunks of "climate science" and "nutritional advice" seem indeed to be largely conspiracies. There again, there is that odd section of American political belief that seems to think it mandatory to believe in evolution, except in humans over the last few tens of thousands of years.

In Britain we had the extra complication that when the then PM was asked whether his child had had the MMR jab, he prevaricated. Bloody Blair, of course.

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24. a on April 15, 2014 1:22 PM writes...

Important link for all of you that ***actually want to debunk with psychologically tested strategies**, rather than the same bemoaning of "hurf durf they no logical"

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25. Mad Daog on April 15, 2014 3:18 PM writes...

@7 and @11 Yes, Yes and Yes!! We can analyze why the average person does not "get it" when it comes to data and stats, yadda, yadda. Or, we change tactics. How about a bumper sticker / twtter campaign / facebook outlet / celebrity spokeperson for

"I Vaccinate, 'cause I care"
"Vaccinate or die"
"Got Vaccine?
"Vaccination: it's French for not dying"

The facts and data show that autism occurs in the womb. What is needed is a clever ad campaign.

How about a baby dressed in a wing suit standing on a cliff about to free fall. "You wouldnt let you baby do this without a parachute would you?'s the smart thing to do."

I am just a dorky scientist. Just think what the clever people in marketing depatments could do with this.

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26. navarro on April 15, 2014 3:21 PM writes...

2 thoughts about this essay and the comments thus far:

1. one of my facebook friends is a retired mechanical engineer with a masters degree from mit. he frequently posts the most ludicrous anti-vaccination posts on his timeline and has been remarkably resistant to any contrary information i link to in the comments to these posts. although i certainly accept that anecdote is not the singular of data, i also have to say that you can't generalize anti-vaccination mania to those with less education or even those with less scientific education.

2. in my experience a flat screwdriver can actually remove nails more frequently than reason can talk someone out of a position they didn't arrive at by means of reason.

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27. spoons on April 15, 2014 3:38 PM writes...

I've come to the sad conclusion that we just need to start doing some 'good' old fashioned public shaming of people. Calling them names, calling them out, making fun of them et cetera. I really hate saying this, because it admits defeat and is obviously a step backwards in terms of discourse, but this kind of study shows that it simply isn't possible via more positive avenues.

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28. anon on April 15, 2014 4:06 PM writes...

As "ugh" inducing as this whole topic is, we have to find an answer. Because children are dying, and they could even be our children (i.e. an infant who contracts whooping cough, etc.). I wonder if anyone has tried giving positive vaccine information? Rather than scaring parents with horror stories about what can happen if you don't, we give them heartwarming stories about children saved by vaccinations. It seems clear that our first instincts as scientists (use data, provide information) do NOT work.

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29. Esteban on April 15, 2014 4:28 PM writes...

spoons said: "I've come to the sad conclusion that we just need to start doing some 'good' old fashioned public shaming of people."

Check out for a nice example of this.

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30. Ilya on April 15, 2014 8:02 PM writes...

I think suspicion of vaccines is at least in part due to vaccines being "too easy". Everyone knows that you if get chickenpox, you are immune afterwards. Being sick with chickenpox is no fun, it is days of suffering. So being immune afterward seems "fair". Whereas one jab with a needle is too simple to be believable -- it feels like cheating: "There has to be a catch somewhere!" And then Wakefield comes up with his fraud, and "vaccines are too easy" feeling is vindicated.

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31. Joesixpack on April 15, 2014 9:32 PM writes...

Back in October the Skeptical OB wrote a very good article on this very thing. There's a study she links to which is well worth reading as well

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32. Zemyla on April 15, 2014 10:15 PM writes...

@28 anon:
You don't see stories of children saved by vaccines, because in most cases vaccines are preventative and invisible. If a child gets the whooping cough vaccine and then doesn't catch whooping cough, you can't prove it was because of the vaccine.

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33. Nick K on April 16, 2014 4:39 AM writes...

Peter Medawar once observed that, with the spread of secondary and tertiary education, "many people were now educated far beyond their capacity for analytical thought".

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34. Anonymous on April 16, 2014 4:40 AM writes...

The only way to conquer fear and emotion is with fear and emotion: show a few videos of kids with these terrible diseases, and their parents in tears, sobbing and explaining how they could have easily avoided this if they had just listened to the right people whose job it is to understand the facts and care for their children on their behalf...

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35. anonymous also on April 16, 2014 5:22 AM writes...

@34: What you propose isn't much further from what was already tried in the present study ("(3) images of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine").

The problem is that the more you show them, the more they interpret it as manipulative propaganda, and it just makes them dig in their heels harder.

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36. Tiger Chemistry on April 18, 2014 1:27 PM writes...

Dunning-Kuger effect seems pretty relevant to the confidence discrepancy

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37. Chemcat on April 19, 2014 10:00 AM writes...

I liked Derek's approach to turning a point of conflict into an opportunity for dialogue. By asking the other person questions about his or her beliefs, he caused that person to clarify and practically apply preconceived beliefs for himself or herself.

Derek was firm but respectful in his approach. While it can be frustrating to pose scientific arguments to people who do not readily embrace them, scientists hurt how their arguments are received when they use disrespectful discussion tactics such as belittling, name-calling, and shunning. Some scientists (and non-scientists, too) cite "lack of education" and "religious conviction" as character attacks, instead of trying to educate and engage their audiences on common grounds. There is no place in productive dialogue for insulting language, I think.

It is true that not all ideas are equally valuable, but the people behind the arguments do have equal value as humans. Keeping mutual respect at the center of any dialogue is important for scientists and non-scientists alike.

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38. New Tactician on April 19, 2014 8:28 PM writes...

It seems that you are advocating complete reliance on rational engagement and unwavering deference to the norms of courtesy as a public health strategy. While your motivations are no doubt noble, this study supports the argument that there is no dialog to rescue, and that further efforts to that end are pointless.

Vaccination rates and the frequency of outbreaks of preventable diseases are readily quantifiable, and remain in my opinion, the only relevant measures of "productivity" in this discussion. Given that we as scientists have failed to improve either outcome via this route, there appears to me to be a a moral imperative to try something new.

Given that the self-serving phenotype that predominates in the anti-vax community is largely responsible for the gutting of science funding over the past two decades, I have no problem making opponents of reason mildly uncomfortable when they endanger public health.

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39. Oblarg on April 20, 2014 10:02 PM writes...

In a war of public opinion, one must fight dirty. Rhetoric is a dark art, but a necessary one.

This is why scientists are (generally) extremely bad at combating antiscience movements; we are hampered by all of our training against making unjustified claims. The rules we follow are tuned to help us generate accurate views about reality, not to convince the layman. The constraints of those two goals have very nearly no overlap.

The *only* way you combat this kind of garbage is by lowering yourself to their level. Most trained scientists are not willing to do this, and as long as that is the case they will lose.

A scientist might have reservations about exploiting known cognitive biases to generate agreement - after all, doing this is precisely how one ends up being horribly wrong about a large number of things in the first place - but the leaders of the antiscience movement sure don't.

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40. fajensen on April 25, 2014 11:02 AM writes...

Dogmatic ideology can only be defeated by organized chaos and the force field created by simply giving zero fucks about the opponent's beliefs and values, which they treasure so dearly and therefore limit them (in the same way that scientist are limited to argue rationally about evidence).

I say that the best the best solution is always the person otherwise most unfit for the job. Fuel him up and let him wreck havoc. Ridiculing, belittling and mocking the believers, exposing their weird ideas and phobias - that kind of thing as far away from "enlightened debate" as possible.

The KKK was mocked to oblivion by Superman

"We" need to find a better comedian than Jim Carry to mock the anti-vaccine crowd off the stage.

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41. Kurt on April 28, 2014 8:10 PM writes...

@johnnboy: I've wondered the same thing, especially after watching clips of the True Believers(tm).

My guess along the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is that they're ESFJ:

1. E - Their extroversion allows them to be convinced as long as their crowd is convinced. Furthermore, this is also the source of projected blame for bad things: (i.e., "they" did it). Could technically wildcard with (I)ntroversion, but too much (I) would likely cause empathy; however, that's probably why the "best" way to convince them is to make them see it from your perspective (i.e., that, as a human/parent/family member, you'd never suppress cancer cures or push evil vaccines and obviously if you ever got wind of it, you'd expose it). Problem is, scientists aren't typically strong in the (E) realm, don't get invited to gatherings (or don't go), and thus don't have the necessary peer-to-peer exposure. :P

2. S - They rely on their own personal experience and that which they see in immediate social circles (hence, distrust of "the establishment"). Could also have a little bit of N (but only if they're not intelligent). And by "intelligent" I mean not just interchangeable with "can memorize" and whatnot, I mean intelligent as in world-view/cross-cultural/truly-big-picture/wise intelligent... which they're not. This probably also gets in the way of empathy and reinforces self-formed generalizations and prejudices, (J), as opposed to contradictory evidence (T).

3. F - feels as opposed to (T)hinks/reasons/uses logic. Pretty straightforward on this one.

4. J - judges instead of perceives. This is where they absolutely must have a good bead on the world and cannot stand to be wrong (too much cognitive dissonance). This is why it's so difficult to convince them otherwise; they've passed judgement and are now only looking to prevent buyer's remorse (i.e., a shift from their "good (F)eeling" of what the truth is). The challenge to this judgment would have come from (I)ntroversion (via empathy) or (T)hinking (via logic and stats), neither of which are in-force.

There's no easy answer with this, if I'm right. The only viable way to get to them is via the empathy route (via stimulating their inner (I)ntrovert) or by letting their kids die from disease so that their prevailing (S)ense in their communities change the way they (F)eel in their gut. Direct challenges to (J) and (F) are non-starters.

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