2/13/10

Skeptics and Deniers

Chris Mooney explores vaccine denialism with Paul Offit in his debut interview as host of Point of Inquiry.  Interesting issue, good interview. I suspect Point of Inquiry will keep on providing the best podcasts around.  Thanks to the program, (A) my house sometimes gets cleaned and (B) I sometimes get something called "exercise."  (Have you heard of it?) 

The vaccine deniers are people who deny that vaccines don't cause autism.  That's a lot of negatives.  More simply, they're people who assert that vaccines do cause autism.   Obviously, the point of calling them "deniers" or "denialists" is to bring to mind Holocaust denial.  A denier (as opposed to a skeptic) is someone who both flouts reason and evidence and is morally reprehensible for doing so.  The flouting leads to some sort of egregious misbehavior.  The Holocaust denier grossly dishonors the millions who suffered and perished in the death camps.  The vaccine denier encourages people not to have their children vaccinated, exposing them and other kids to serious health risks.

For a while I've been thinking about the difference between a "denier" and a "skeptic" because I use the word "denier" in the third chapter of Animalkind to describe people who claim that animals have no conscious experiences, and specifically feel no pain.  That's the term I use to refer to Peter Carruthers, Peter Harrison, and Stephen Budiansky.  I do think they flout reason and evidence, and I do think they're morally reprehensible-- especially Peter Carruthers, because he explicitly draws out the implications of his stance on animal pain.  He writes--
Much time and money is presently spent on alleviating the pains of brutes, which ought properly to be directed toward human beings, and many now are campaigning to reduce the efficiency of modern farming methods because of the pain to the animals involved.  If the arguments presented here have been sound, such activities are not only morally unsupportable but morally objectionable. ("Brute Experience," p. 268)
Did you pay for anesthesia when you had your dog neutered? How silly of you.  Animals feel no pain!  The money should have been put toward something more important--he tells us. And don't lets be fussing about factory farming and slaughterhouses.  The animals feel nothing!

You might say that it's obvious to any reasonable person that the Holocaust did occur, and obvious to anybody who's studied the scientific evidence that vaccines don't cause autism.  On the other hand, there's a real puzzle about what animals experience. So is it fair to call Carruthers & Co. "deniers"?

Perhaps this is the best way to explain why animal pain deniers deserve that name. The sort of doubt you can feel about animal suffering is the wrong type to ground decisions to withdraw pain relief from animals. It's armchair doubt, ivory tower doubt, the kind of doubt you can generate in a philosophy class.  It's beyond a reasonable doubt that a dog will feel pain during surgery (see my chapter for discussion). So saying they don't, and consequently excoriating people for "alleviating the pains of brutes," really does involve a morally reprehensible mishandling of evidence.


The vaccine issue is interesting for lots of other reasons.  More on that in another post.

17 comments:

Ophelia Benson said...

There's a further point about Holocaust deniers, which is that at least one of them is known to have falisified evidence, and not just a little but extensively. This is David Irving, and his falsification wouldn't even be known if he hadn't sued Deborah Lipstadt for...precisely, calling him a Holocaust denier. Penguin defended and the result was that it paid the historian Richard Evans to comb through Irving's work to check his sources - which was hugely demanding and labor-intensive and not something that readers could just do casually or by googling - it involved trips to German archives. This is a very active kind of 'denial' and it's a kind that can easily be concealed, as it almost was in Irving's case.

So the extra meaning in 'denial' is well earned, at least in this case.

amos said...

The term "denial" has a lot of different meanings that get confused. The Holocaust deniers deliberately present false evidence. There is also psychological denial, defined as Wikipedia as "a defense mechanism in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence". The Wikipedia article cites the American Heart Association which claims that denial is the chief reason people delay getting treatment for heart attacks. The Holocaust deniers are not denying in good faith, while the person with a heart attack is denying in good faith, which makes a huge difference.
Climate change deniers seem to include some who act in good faith and others, generally representing certain lobbies or interest groups, who do not act in good faith. The animal pain deniers seem just plain perverse:
ivory tower doubters, as you say,
who to start a controversy and to make a name for themselves, deny what is evident to all and to themselves too.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think people are confused about the meaning of "denial" when they apply the term first to Holocaust deniers, and then to vaccine-safety deniers, climate change deniers, and animal pain deniers. There's an underlying sameness there, even if there's lots of variation on a theme. I think the thread running through all these things is some sort of culpable mishandling of evidence, leading to morally reprehensible conduct. The blank-denier refuses to see something reasonable people would see, and consequently makes serious moral errors. (It would take a lot of work to characterize deniers more precisely.) I think it's fair to create guilt by association by calling all these folks "deniers"--though you want to be sure not to overuse the term. All deniers are skeptics, but not all skeptics should be called "deniers."

amos said...

I've never run into vaccine deniers in this part of the world, but I think that some climate change deniers are closer to the heart attack denier or the guy who denies that his wife no longer loves him(although the whole town notices) than they are to Holocaust deniers or animal-suffering deniers. The Holocaust denier and the animal suffering denier deny something that they know is true: they consciously lie. On the other hand, the heart-attack denier and many climate change deniers refuse to see what everyone else sees because they don't want to see it: in the case of the heart attack denier because of his self-image of being healthy and in the case of some climate change deniers because they do not want to imagine changing their life-style. That refusal to see is not conscious or if it is conscious at some moment, that consciousness is immediately forgotten or repressed. In questions of healthcare I often deny problems and put off seeing a doctor or a dentist, as do most of the people around me.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm not sure you're right about the Holocaust deniers or animal-suffering deniers. If part of "denialism" (all forms) is wishful thinking, some of them may succeed in thinking what they wish to think. They really don't accept that the Holocaust occurred or animal pain exists. In fact, I'd bet most of them are like that. They've succeeded in convincing themselves.

The psychology in the different cases surely varies. Vaccine-efficacy deniers are sometimes people who have had autistic children and desperately want something to blame. I've met people like that, but I've also met people who don't vaccinate out of a more general paranoia about government and the "medical establishment." They are people who go in for all sorts of non-mainstream stuff--they homeschool, breastfeed for a very long time, share a family bed, etc. etc. So there's nothing like anti-semitism involved, of course.

amos said...

If you're interested in the difference between deniers and skeptics, no one is less skeptical and more dogmatic than the anti-mainstream medicine set. If you ask any normal doctor if it's o.k. to try reiki along with your prescription medicine, she is likely to say: it can't hurt, just be sure to take your prescription medicine as indicated. That is the attitude of a skeptical mind. If you ask the reiki set if mainstream medicine can help along with the sessions of reiki, they are likely to excommunicate you for heresy for even raising the question.

Melissa said...

I'm not sure I see how vaccine deniers are similar to Holocaust deniers. Let me first say, I am neither. My children are both up-to-date on all vaccines. Yet there are most certainly cases -- that is, evidence -- of children suffering seizures/reactions after receiving vaccinations. Furthermore, it is an undeniable fact that vaccines contain toxic substances. Parents and health professionals should rightly be concerned (skeptical) about vaccine safety. Could there be unknown consequences of vaccinating too much too soon, generation after generation... We do not know.

While the most current evidence seems to suggest autism spectrum disorders are most likely genetic -- or partly so at least in some cases, the cause is yet *unknown*. So how can a person be a vaccine denier? If the cause of autism spectrum disorders were known, then there could exist vaccine deniers similar to Holocaust deniers. But to classify vaccine deniers as "morally reprehensible" as Holocaust deniers, I for one just do not see it.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't mean to say vaccine deniers are as morally reprehensible as Holocaust deniers. I'm just saying it's with good reason that people use the term "denier" in all these different cases. They have SOMETHING important in common, but that doesn't mean they're equally deluded or morally flawed.

To call someone a denier, you do have to make up your mind what is a reasonable thing to believe on the relevant subject. From what I can see from reading articles over the years, the reasonable thing to believe is that vaccines don't cause autism. (Though what does? Apparently we don't know.) But really I'm not trying to take a stand on that--I'm just pondering the word "denialism" and what it means...and my own extension of the term to people who deny that animals feel pain.

Melissa said...

"From what I can see from reading articles over the years, the reasonable thing to believe is that vaccines don't cause autism."

I see your point there, yet it would be just as reasonable for the parent(s) whose child is vaccinated and then hospitalized 24hours later to remain skeptical or deny claims that vaccines definitely play no role in ASD.

I do not mean to derail the thread. I realize vaccine deniers are not the entire subject of this post, and that you mentioned discussing vaccines at a future time...

Enjoy the blog fast. I should do the same!

Jean Kazez said...

Sneaking in one last comment (son is not looking)...I have a friend whose son developed autism. I understand the psychology of that experience, and really do understand why she didn't vaccinate her second child. So... don't mean to be overly judgmental. When I talk about deniers I'm really thinking of the people who organize the anti-vaccine movement, write books about it, tell others not to vaccinate, and ought to be up on all the research. When they were small my kids did play with some unvaccinated kids, and it irked me that the parents wanted the benefits of living in a society where most kids are vaccinated, but didn't take on their share of the risks.

Ah well...it's complicated. Maybe it should be a topic for further discussion later...after the fast!

Faust said...

I'm not sure that in the case of animal phenomenology the problem is a "culpable mishandling of evidence" but rather the deployment of Pyrrhonian skepticism gone wrong. It is an inappropriate use of theory, not evidence (the evidence of animals writhing, yelping, avoiding is not denied, it is interpreted away).

Having started your book now, I can speak directly to the chapter in question, where you fight theoretical fire with theoretical fire, deploying Chalmer's theory that awareness is "direct availablity for global control" to combat the seeming plausibility of animals as robots (accesssible to us intuitively as instances of extended "distracted driving").

Without going into too much detail at the moment (since it's pretty complicated), suffice it to say that I'm not sure I buy Chalmer's version of availablity (I'm more sympathetic to second-order theories than first-order theories) BUT I think that one could still probably preserve a space for animal (and infant) phenomenology by downgrading second-order judgements instead of upgrading first-order registrations.

My feeling is that both the theoretical denial and the corresponding theoretical rebuttal both have an ad hoc feel to them, and that what is better to focus on is the implausibility that there is a sharp demarcation point, particularly in the case of mammals given the extensive similarity in morphology (and you do not ignore this point in your book, though in chapter two the project seems to be more to engage in a bit of philosophical trench warfare).

So I do agree that there is unwarranted denial here, but I think it is at the level of implausible ad hoc interpretation, and not at the level of evidence, because quite frankly, when it comes to consciousness theory, we are still trying to figure out what constitutes evidence. As Chalmer's notes: "we lack an experience meter with which to confirm and refine these hypotheses empirically."

But I do agree our difficulty in formulating and testing our theories about consiousness should not therefore make us think that therefore animals don't feel pain. Ignorance is ignorance. Given our ignorance, I think it is safer to err on the side of our gut intuitions, and my guess is that most people intuit many animals as experiencing pain. The extent of that pain and the way it connects to a general conception of suffering leaves plenty of room for discussion.

Jean Kazez said...

Quickly--because of blog fast!--when I say "culpable mishandling of evidence" I'm using the word "evidence" in a very wide sense. I could have said "culpably bad reasoning."

I don't think the global availability stuff is meant to explain what consciousness IS, but only to give us a handle on when it's present or absent. So I'm appealing to it in the chapter in a very limited way.

I must try to explain (later!) why I find higher order theories so unappealing...

Faust said...

Even only on a limited sense of "present or absent" I still have issues with it. We can discuss at length when you return to (not from!) the real world.

I hope you have extracted a relevant pound of flesh from your son in exchange...

Jean Kazez said...

By all means, I'm plotting my revenge. (rubbing hands together, cackling.)

Jean Kazez said...

Re: discussing. Yes, when I return it would be great to discuss the consciousness stuff in that chapter.

Faust said...

so...

hard...

not...

to...

touch...

keyboard...

Jean Kazez said...

Ha...

If you'd like to write up a short(ish) objection/discussion of chapter 3, send it to me and I'll post it with a reply once I get back from my fast. That would be fun. Up to you...

jkazez@smu.edu