This confusion of the epistemic with the political

Jerry Coyne and Orac have commented on Chris Mooney’s article on how to deal with anti-vaxxers but I’ll just add a thought.

Mooney asks what it would take to make the “vaccine-autism debate” (which isn’t a real debate) go away.

A Lancet retraction isn’t going to do it, that’s for sure. For vaccine skeptics, that’s just more evidence of corruption and collusion in the medical establishment. Indeed, I doubt any individual scientific development has the strength to move these folks—because we aren’t dealing with a phenomenon that’s scientific in nature.

Quite right; we’re dealing with irrational immovable conviction. What to do?

Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything. We need to encourage moderation, and break down a polarized situation in which the anti-vaccine crowd essentially rejects modern medical research based on the equivalent of conspiracy theory thinking…

As so often with Mooney, I have no idea what exactly he means by that. I do know vaguely what he means, because it’s obvious enough, and it’s all too typical – but I really don’t know exactly. I know he means we need everybody to be nice, and try to heal this ‘gap’ or ‘fissure’ or ‘polarity’ by being nice and looking into one another’s eyes and thinking ‘this is just another nice person like me, after all’…but I also know he doesn’t really literally mean that, because it’s too silly. But what does he mean? I asked in a comment there (which I can do there! because I’m not banned there! because it’s not The Intersection! it’s so exciting):

How? How is it possible to do that when, as you say yourself, “we’re really dealing with something very irrational here”? What does it mean to “encourage moderation” when one side won’t take any notice of evidence or argument? What does it mean to talk of a “polarized situation” as if the issue were fundamentally political rather than empirical? What use is it to import the language of political discussion and compromise into a pseudo-controversy over medical evidence? What reason is there to think that absolutely everything can be translated into the language of politics and “framing” and manipulation?

What does he mean by ‘moderation,’ do you suppose? What kind of moderation can proponents of vaccination resort to? Talking in really soft voices? Smiling while they talk? What? It is not clear, because Mooney (as so very often, or even always) didn’t make it clear. He just used some buzz words, and let it go at that. He’s very lazy about this stuff, when you get right down to it. He’s certainly not lazy in general; his first book was a triumph of energetic investigation. But he is very lazy about this; he thinks buzz words are all that’s necessary.

And he thinks everything is political. I think that’s where I disagree with him most profoundly – over this confusion of the epistemic with the political. I think ‘moderation’ on an empirical question is fundamentally meaningless, and I think making political noises about it just confuses things.

That’s the thought I wanted to add.

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