Random thought after a dinner-party discussion of vaccination

Facts are stubborn things, but not nearly as stubborn as the people who refuse to deal with them.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

31 thoughts on “Random thought after a dinner-party discussion of vaccination”

    1. It was probably a bunch of glib, blithe people who fancied themselves very smart, who were cherry-picking oddball research findings and still misrepresenting them, who had oddly specific problems with arithmetic and numbers (all mistakes in their direction, against the laws of probability).

      And after refusing to even acknowledge facts or correct math, they probably resorted to insulting the people who were winning the fact-based argument.

      I’m sure that you’re familiar with such people.

    2. Thusly? When will people educate themselves sufficiently in their allegedly native tongue and realize that “thusly” is a barbarously incorrect form? Thus is the correct adverb.

  1. A grown-up (in chronological terms) was debating a very bright 14-year-old. The grown-up’s view was that the body naturally resists disease and that vaccination would be unnecessary if we all ate our granola. The 14-year-old pointed to the eradication of smallpox and the virtual eradication of polio. The grown-up replied that vaccination isn’t 100% successful, and that many people who don’t get vaccinated also don’t get sick. The 14-year-old explained herd immunity. The grown-up said that they were starting from different epistemological assumptions and should agree to disagree. I refrained from actually throwing things, and tried afterwards to convince the 14-year-old that holding indefensible beliefs doesn’t imply either stupidity or lunacy. He was politely skeptical.

    1. Congratulations to the 14-year-old.

      My then-stepmother once finished a conversation with me by saying “You’re so smart. I can never win an argument with you.” At that time, unfortunately, I had not learned Socrates’ riposte to a similar complaint.

    2. Ahh, the old “different ways of knowing” argument to shut someone up. I’ve responded to this with “well I guess we can agree that you don’t believe in reason” but that doesn’t seem to help.

    3. Had same “debate” with my mother’s girlfriend this summer. I suppose I came off as rude when I told her she was simply “wrong”, and there wasn’t much to discuss. This, also, from someone with an undergraduate degree in science, with a considerable knowledge of immunology. Once you open the door for conspiracy theories, you never know what might slither in.

    4. You didn’t throw things, but I bet you did the classic Kleiman epileptic eyebrow.

  2. If I may be offtopic, will Bob Jesse be continuing his series of posts responding to the common objections brought up to the psilocybin studies?

  3. tried afterwards to explain to the 14-year-old that holding indefensible beliefs doesn’t imply either stupidity or lunacy. He was skeptical.

    Good for him/her.

    The grown-up said that they were starting from different epistemological assumptions and should agree to disagree.

    This makes me wanna puke. Brave Sir Robin ran away, ran away…

  4. I have experienced similar sensations listening to intelligent, generally moderate-to-liberal adults insist that other developed countries’ health care systems are a mess compared to ours, with long waiting periods and people coming here for care.

  5. Realy,, Ken? In my experience, it’s the moderately conservative to bat-shit crazy, ignorant illeberals who insist that everyone in the knjown universe is trying to beat their way into thecountry for it’s health care, and the IGMTLAs who try to point out that 1) many other countries have better health care than we do at lower costs and 2) the poeple who are trying to come here don’t generally have ANY health care so anything is better.

    But then, we all know that anecdote is not data, now, don’t we.

    1. John and Ken:
      Our cutting-edge medicine is probably the best in the world, so I see no reason why rich foreigners with cutting-edge diseases wouldn’t come here for care. Of course, things are different for the other 99.9% of us. So there is no inconsistency between (a few rich) foreigners coming here for (cutting-edge) care, and a crappy overall US healthcare system.

        1. Today, my sister flew out to a central american nation, so she could afford to get the dental work (a root canal and several crowns replaced) that she needed. Getting them done in the US would have cost more than she earned last year. The flight, the hotel and the dental bills added together were about 1/10th the US asking price.

        1. Somehow, every news story about this unfortunate boy is from February or March 2003 – no obvious sign of a followup report over the near decade that has elapsed since then. For example, whether this “daring” attempt to cure him using stem cells helped. I wish him and his kin the best, of course, but I am more than skeptical.

          I find it completely unsurprising that Brett refuses to believe Obama was born on this planet, not having witnessed the even nor monitored him continuously since then, but eagerly awaits the day when every charlatan and snake oil salesman can perpetrate their hokum upon the unprotected masses.

        2. “You know, maybe ending the guild status of medicine, that artificially limits the number of medical practitioners?”

          Agreed. Though it has other bad effects beyond the (important) one you point out.

  6. The grown-up said that they were starting from different epistemological assumptions and should agree to disagree.

    Contra Rob in CT, I think this is a pretty stand-up thing for the grownup to do. People with primitive epistemological assumptions – creationists, 9-11 truthers, vaccine denialists – seldom acknowledge the epistemological approach that underlies their beliefs. I find this acknowledgment so unusual, in fact, that I’m a little skeptical of Prof. K’s account on this score.

    1. I hear you on that, but if the adult in question has enough self-awareness to admit that, then why refuse to seriously examine those assumptions? I guess I agree that it’s better than saying “nahnahnahnah I can’t hear you!”

    2. Or at least to explain which set of batsh*t crazy set of epistemological assumptions he was starting from. Without stating the assumptions, it’s just a sophisticated was of saying, “Go away kid, ya bother me.”

  7. And there is a funny thing about reality and b*tsh*t crazy epistemological assumptions. Reality has a way of winning that dispute in matters of importance, like vaccination.

  8. The problem here, I think, is one of sample selection: the kind of people who think vaccination should be a debatable point are the kind of people primed to reject obvious scientific facts. These are the kind of people I really try to avoid altogether. I mean, seriously, life is short and their children are likely to be a threat to other children, especially infants.

  9. MK: “The grown-up’s view was that the body naturally resists disease and that vaccination would be unnecessary if we all ate our granola.”

    The grown-up is half-wrong on the first count (absent an immune response and antibiotics, people used to die readily from infectious disease) and 100% wrong on the second. I read this a case of the Parents’ Fallacy of overstating the (limited) benefits of a generally desirable conduct in the hope of scoring a quick win.

    In this case, the true argument is merely: a high-fibre diet will lower your lifetime risk of obesity and bowel and heart disease. Since the baseline risk of these is very high for American teenagers, the benefit is worth having. Granola won’t make you richer, cleverer, funnier, fitter, or more attractive. But if you have these advantages, a sound diet will help you enjoy them longer.

  10. Thanks Uncle Mark, for writing about the exchange between me and one of my other uncles – and for your skeptical eyebrow move.

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