My Faults My Own

One's ponens is another's tollens.

Anti-vaxxers

This is part 2 of ? of a recurring series on approaching debates with a mind toward actually changing minds and the world.

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If you personally believe that it is the correct moral choice to elect[1] not to have the people you are responsible for vaccinated, this post will not make you very happy. I'm being a lot more charitable to you than most are, but I still end up being condescending and rude. I'm sorry -- I'd like to have a civil conversation sometime to try and change your mind without resorting to condescension -- but this article wasn't written for you; it was written about you, for people who already agree with me.

If you personally believe that electing to have the people you are responsible for (including yourself) vaccinated is the right thing to do, welcome! We agree on this point! If you think I'm writing an apologia excusing the anti-vax movement, I promise you that that's not my intention.

Ross Douthat (no relation) has a great piece in the New York Times yesterday, profiling (and stereotyping, yes) the three kinds of anti-vaxxers you meet (if, y'know, you're the sort of person who meets lots of anti-vaxxers):

So the philosophical issues are tangled: Just as the anti-vaxx idea cuts across the partisan divide, so do the reasons for its flourishing cut across ideological visions of how best to organize society, how people should relate to the local, the national, the corporate, what kinds of dissent are healthy and what forms we should prefer dissent to take. This is good news, in a way, because (to return to where I began) it makes the issue very unlikely to ever polarize along partisan lines. But it also makes it a hard phenomenon to wrestle into submission, because however misguided it’s bound up in patterns and instincts that both left and right -- and all Americans, really -- sometimes appreciate, partake of, and defend. (...)

The three types aren't broken out in the quote, but they are in the article, and [spoilers] break up roughly into:

  • Underinformed
  • Some combination of (willfully) misinformed, selfish, and callous
  • Intensely distrustful/afraid of modern medicine (perhaps after a bad experience), who literally believe that statistics are not predictive of their (families') future experiences

One and a half of these groups can be reasoned with civilly, and the others, you should just walk away from. After all, herd immunity works, even if there are immunizable defectors. Though, to be fair, some of the obstinant defectors can be coerced into it by the same mechanisms we use to coerce libertarians into paying taxes, as Frederik deBoer argues, and which Douthat suspects we may not actiually need:

My sense has been that the pro-vaccination consensus is powerful enough, and rates of noncompliance/opting-out low enough, that a free society can afford to allow people with these kind of highly-abnormal experiences to chart their own course... (...)

Unfortunately, it seems to be quite fashionable (among surprisingly sensible people) to take to social media and be Very Loudly Outraged at the very worst, most vocal anti-vax advocates. This tactic, I think, is supposed to convince anyone still on the fence that This Is An Important Issue, and, more importantly, that the pro-vax position is the Definitely Right one.

This, it seems to me, is the wrong way to go about it, in that it ends up convincing neither the people you're yelling at, nor other skeptics listening to you tell. Let's take a brief digression through Ozy Frantz's perpetually-relevant Thing of Things | On Believing Things About Your Political Enemies:

My brain is continually surprised when anti-[vaxxers] are people.

Because, you know, they’re my political enemies. Clearly when people are political enemies, it means that they go around cackling and wearing all black and burning kittens. So when it turns out that, in fact, anti-[vaxxers] are mostly just people who [believe in good faith that there are serious problems with modern vaccines and that this fact justifies the choice to not vaccinate themselves or those close to them], my brain gets really confused. "You're... a nice person? And you make jokes? You have interesting thoughts about Lord of the Rings? DOES NOT COMPUTE."

And I feel like this is a really common thing that people do. I mean, my brain assumes that anti-[vaxxers] advocate [against vaccinations] because they're evil and want to hurt people. Other people might assume that other people advocate their political opinions because they're too stupid to realize how bad it is, or because they’re literally just insane.

...

(Second Obvious Disclaimer: everyone understands that "this political position is horrible and will hurt people" and "the advocates of this political position are people" can both be true statements at the same time, right?) (...)

Seriously, go read it. It's required reading for the rest of this post. Wash it down with Thing of Things | Don't Call People Anti-Choice.


Let's imagine that I put you in a room with another person for two hours, and you're told only that they have refused to allow their child to be given several major governmentally-mandated vaccinations. What's the first argument you use to try to convince them that they're in the wrong?

What's the second?

How many arguments do you make before you ask them "Why do you believe what you believe?", and adjust your arguments accordingly?

How long do you listen to their point of view before jumping back in with your own?

I claim that there are right and wrong answers to these last two questions, that the first two are poorly posed, and that if you don't recognize this fact, you are handicapping yourself in the pro-vaccination fight.


This is not an argument claiming that selfish, short-sighted, let-the-world-burn-but-deliver-my-child-from-the-horrors-of-autism parents don't exist, because they do. It is not even an argument claiming that you should pretend otherwise. But even if it is the case that there exist anti-vaxxers who are quoted accurately in the newspaper saying with straight faces that they are happy to let children die so that their child can be "pure", thinking about them doesn't help you fix the problem, namely, that there are people who can be convinced to vaccinate their children who aren't, right now, doing so.

Dealing with those people requires thinking of your adversaries as misguided, not evil -- which does little harm when you're wrong, just as the converse does little good. This (beginning from the assumption that people really aren't as bad as they might be) is exactly the sort of thing Leah Libresco calls "holy foolishness" in Unequally Yoked | Holy Fools Against the Mini-Maxers:

In order to prevent the manipulators from warping the whole system, our option is a kind of holy foolishness. A refusal to become wise, if wisdom is defined as harm-minimizing, and a willingness to be taken advantage of sometimes, in order to offer ourselves to be called upon in good faith. We offer our own disadvantage in order to offset the ratchet effect our loss-aversion would otherwise lock us into...

But, if you assume that you will sometimes be taken advantage of, in the course of leading a pleasant, open-to-others life, then all you care about is whether you’re taken advantage of too frequently. Until [people] start to manipulate you at some level above the threshhold you thought would be ok, there's no need to close up in response to a lie. It's just the cost of doing business pleasantly, just as sometimes getting wet is the cost of not carrying an umbrella everywhere. (...)

Of course, dealing with the misguided with charity and patience is hard -- for one, you need to have both good, persuasive background literature on hand, and enough kindness to convince your interlocutor to read it -- but that's the way the fight is fought; sorry to break it to you; welcome to boot camp in the Legion of Negentropy[?]; no one ever said that changing minds was easy.

Update: Faults reader Christine Piatko pointed me at a recent NPR interview in which correspondent Shankar Vedantam also gets behind the idea that treating anti-vaxers as ignorant or stupid makes it difficult to actually change anyone's mind, let alone the world:

You know, David, when my child has a nightmare, I don't come to her in the middle of the night and say, look, you're a moron for believing there's a monster under your bed. I acknowledge that the fear might be real, even if there's no monster under the bed. And we -- I sort of help her deal with the fear. (...)

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