I was reading a fellow blogger’s post about the vaccination debate (a debate that should not even exist) as the author of the blog had highlighted a particular response to her blog from a physician and posed the question about why are we not willing to
listen to the physicians point of view. She was also interested about why we would trust doctor’s in one case, but not in the case of vaccinations. This is a very valid question. If you are going to say doctors are out to lunch on vaccines and the very same medical science goes into everything else in the profession then you should never go see a doctor, take care of things on your own, and most importantly keep your kid at home so he or she doesn’t infect anybody else.
However it is the “Why don’t we believe the physician?” question that had me thinking as I drove to work this morning and I started thinking about how this is true for things like climate change and other scientific issues now and in the past like GMOs, evolution, the dangers of smoking, etc. I was reminded of an excellent YouTube video that I have posted many times before called Good without Gods that talks about the basis for morality in a society. One of the ways in which we can acquire morality is by default to authority, sometimes mistakenly so. I believe that this is a basic cognitive bias humans have, perhaps because we all, from a very young age, default to the authority of our parents. Part of growing up is realizing that your parents don’t have all the answers and don’t know everything, but part of our brains never really grows out of this default to authority bias. This is in part why many people feel comfortable deriving their morality from religious authority without question. Of course there is too much to know in the world and defaulting to authority saves time, and thus energy of which we all have only a finite amount of. As a scientist I would say always be skeptical, but that means that we should also be equally skeptical to somebody who says vaccines cause autism. In the face of controversy it seems the default to authority is what people rely on, so the question is, why isn’t the authority thousands of scientists who by consensus and exhaustive amounts of research say one thing as opposed to a politician who says another? I have come up with a few possibilities but would be interested to hear what others think. Here are the thoughts that I have come up with so far:
- False authority figures. Who are the people we value in our society?
Here in the U.S. it seems like the views of celebrities, politicians, and people with money (who are sometimes all one and the same) carry weight as being an authority on scientific issues. This is simply not the case.
- The power of money. In a highly consumer based society, money is seen as equivocal to power and thus authority. If you have a lot of money you must have been smart to get it. That is false of course. Many people inherit their wealth, have connections, work very hard (but don’t necessarily have a high intellect), and some just get lucky breaks. Most of the smartest people I know don’t make money their goal.
- Devaluing intellectualism. In many countries I have visit those who are well educated, teachers, scientists are well respected in the community and in society at large. Education itself is increasingly devalued here in the U.S. and so if educated people don’t have value in society that how can they be a worthwhile authority on anything?
The American Dream was built on valuing education, change, and progress. We do not live in a society in which that dream is simply unobtainable for most and yet we believe in the concept like it manifested itself out of nothing.