Pediatrician, mom and toddler

I am still puzzling over the strange phenomenon of science-denying in our country. Although I heartily disagree with this offensive approach, I can understand why malevolent imams in Pakistan incite ignorant villagers to kill health workers vaccinating against polio. I can even understand how some religious sects, practicing Taliban-lite fanaticism, refuse blood transfusions and vaccinations. But how can highly educated people, mostly not deeply religious, in this country deny science?

Don’t they require science courses in high school anymore? My granddaughters who are in elementary school can talk freely and intelligently about DNA. So how is it that people who actually deal with science, in one form or another, on a daily basis in their jobs willingly refuse to protect their children against infectious diseases, including some that have pretty awful consequences. Take a look at this chart, straight from Wired, the Science and Technology magazine:

Vaccine Charts
What’s wrong with the people at Pixar? Do they live in a make-believe world? They are located in Berkeley, not far from the citadel of learning—U.C. Berkeley—and yet nothing rubbed off? And, what about the people at Cisco? What’s their excuse? Here it is: “Cisco childcare facilities care for infants who are under the age of completion for full vaccination series,” says Robyn Blum, spokeswoman for Cisco. Good try, Robyn, but I’m not buyin’: The California DPH numbers only cover children between 2 and 5 years old, so a large infant population (children under the age of 12 months) who are ineligible for the MMR, shouldn’t skew the overall rate.


What accounts for this strange phenomenon?

It’s hard to say. Despite a great deal of thought and scouring the literature, I was pretty much at a loss. But then, a Eureka moment occurred, inspired by no less an incisive commentator than Jon Stewart (click to link to his amazing rant on Les Measlesrables):

“They’re not rednecks. They’re not ignorant. They practice a mindful stupidity,”

Stewart said, mocking a Marin County California woman interviewed on cable news who said if parents in her area opted against vaccines, they had a good reason for doing so because people in Marin are highly educated. Aha! The lady doth make a point: One can be highly educated and stupid! What an insight, albeit unwittingly.

Mind you, the people at Google or Cisco would never classify themselves as science-deniers. They, by and large, believe that humans contribute to climate change. Several companies in Silicon Valley are actually working on technological solutions to this problem. They probably all believe in evolution and natural selection. But they cling to their belief that vaccines are somehow evil. To my mind, the anti-vaccine sentiment among the highly educated is just as anti-scientific and just as immune to change as any global climate change denialism or creationist views. So, we’ve got to dig deeper.


The trap of confirmation bias

When we make decisions, there are 2 neuropsychological processes at play. The first one, named system 1 by Daniel Kahneman, is fast-acting and is associative in nature. What that means is that it draws on stored experiences, opinions, and biases—and in that context, arrives at a decision. We call it intuition. The other system, system 2, is analytical in nature, and is plodding and indolent. To change the intuitive first impression formed by system 1 takes an extraordinary brain effort, and the energetic cost in terms of ATP is high. So is it any wonder that people are resistant to accepting facts that may shake up their pre-formed beliefs? This is why evidence that conforms to one’s beliefs is readily accepted, and evidence that doesn’t is ignored. This also partly explain why some people gravitate exclusively to Fox News and others to MSNBC. It is a well-known phenomenon in psychology, called confirmation bias.

We can now understand how the two extremes, on the political left and the right, seem to converge in their suspicion of science: They both harbor dark suspicion of government and industry. All evidence to disconfirm their biases is for naught; it will not shake their deeply embedded beliefs.


Why the vehemence?

Confirmation bias still doesn’t account for the vehemence, often virulence, of responses writers face when they touch on a “sensitive” subject. I was taken aback by some of the angry, ad hominem responses to my posts on chronic fatigue syndrome, or gun violence, or food supplements. What makes these subjects “sensitive”? Why can I write about the biological effects of say, testosterone injections and get polite disagreements from users and practicing physicians, or about the approaching singularity and elicit a bunch of noncommittal tweets and re-tweets? The easy answer is that this is a reflection of the dark side of social networks’ anonymity. But this is just that: too easy. Something more fraught is underlying this hostility.


Social identity threat

Peter Naurath of the University of Marburg, Germany, and his colleagues came closest to answering this question in PLoS magazine. In a paper titled “Social Identity Threat Motivates Science-Discrediting on-line Comments,” they examined, in a series of three studies, whether experiencing social identity threat from scientific findings can lead people to cognitively devalue the respective findings. The answer is an unequivocal yes.

We hardly needed a learned study for that. From practical experience, we know that the “devaluing” could range from critique of the methodology to conspiracy theories, and to ad hominem and threats of violence. Consider the case of Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist cultural critic. She has for months received death and rape threats from opponents of her recent work challenging the stereotypes of women in video games. Bomb threats for her public talks are now routine. One detractor created a game in which players can click their mouse to punch an image of her face. Similar reactions have been experienced by contributors to The Doctor Weighs In if they dared to write about gun violence or male circumcision.

When it comes to explaining this degree of “disagreement” psychological theory of confirmation bias doesn’t suffice. The social-identity-threat theory comes much closer.

So will exposing the anti-vaxxers as a group of “mindfully stupid” persuade them to abandon their group identification and join us, the “mindfully scientific” group? Not a chance. Their reaction is going to be reactive. They are more likely to assume a defensive crouch and blame government, industry, and assorted dark forces for ganging up on them. The very definition of paranoid ideation.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. Interesting piece:
    “If you want someone to accept information that contradicts what they already know, you have to find a story they can buy into. That requires bridging the narrative they’ve already constructed to a new one that is both true and allows them to remain the kind of person they believe themselves to be.” In other words, what seems to be required is a creative branding initiative.

  2. Sometime very bright people develop a kind of hubris which leads them to believe their intelligence trumps science. Medical history is littered with such people. In short, “my hunch is better than your science.”


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