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« Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 5.1: the (mis)communication of vaccine-risk perception | Main | What does Christie know that the rest of us don't? My guess is nothing (or even less that that actually) »
Monday
Feb092015

Let it be? Measuring partisan reactions to existing mandatory vaccination laws

In the last week or so, I’ve done somewhere between 2 and 406 blog posts on vaccine risk perceptions (I am indeed bored beyond description; I feel obliged to reciprocate, though, the admirable efforts of others who are trying to shield public discourse from the harm associated with fact-free assertions in this area).

The upshot is that, contrary to the empirically uniformed and reckless blathering of “news” reporters and commentators (not all reporters or commentators are engaged in this behavior!), there is no meaningful public conflict over vaccine safety.

Not only have U.S. vaccination rates held steady at over 90%--the public health target—for all recommended childhood immunizations for over a decade.

But there is also overwhelming consensus in the general population, and within every recognizable political and cultural subsegment of it, that vaccines are safe and make a vital contribution to public health.

But these are characterizations of public risk perceptions

Someone could—a commentator responding to one of my earlier posts did—reasonably ask about whether consensus on vaccine safety translates into consensus in favor of mandatory vaccination laws.

All U.S. states have such laws, requiring vaccination for mumps, measles, and rubella, along with various other childhood diseases, as a condition of school enrollment.  All have so-called “medical exemptions,” for children who have a condition that would make vaccination unsafe, and most “religious” and some “moral” exemptions as well.

Can we say that the same state of consensus exists on this public health regulatory regime?

I’ll show you some data in a sec.

But because this post exceeds what the 14 billion regular readers of this blog know is my usually strictly enforced limit of 250 words, I'll start with this helpful and succinct summary of my own interpretation of them:

1.  Yes, the same consensus supports the current state of the law on mandatory vaccination in the U.S.

2.  However, pursuing legislation to change the status quo—either by eliminating religious or moral exemptions or by eliminating mandatory vaccination laws —risks polarizing the public along familiar political/cultural lines.

3.  Launching childhood vaccines into the reason-eviscerating maelstrom of cultural status conflict that now characterizes issues like climate change, gun control, and the HPV vaccine would itself put this important aspect of our public health system in serious jeopardy. Accordingly, anyone who is considering initiating a campaign to change existing mandatory vaccination laws should (if they care about public health as opposed to making money by being employed to organize such a campaign; marketing and like consulting firms have a huge conflict of interest here) very carefully weigh the risk of that outcome against whatever benefits they might be hoping for in pursuing this course. 

Okay. Here is the evidence.

1. Members of the nationally representative sample that participated in the CCP Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication study were asked what they thought of mandatory vaccination policies.

They responded to a series of questions, which are described in full in the Report,, after first being supplied information (also described there) that was materially identical to the information I supplied above about how those policies work and about the varying forms of exemptions that states permit.  The questions were varied randomly in order.

By an overwhelming margin, the survey participants indicated that they favor existing laws

Specifically, 75% (± 5% at a 0.95 level of confidence) indicated agreed that they “support leaving existing laws on childhood vaccinations as they are.” 

What’s more, this was by far the dominant response across political lines:

The responses to this "let it be" item reflect exactly the same pattern that characterizes the general public’s responses to the study’s vaccine risk-perception items.

Indeed, I myself do not see the response to this item as measuring anything different from what the risk-benefit items measure.

Known as the “affect heuristic,” there is a strong tendency of people to form overall pro- or con- attitudes toward putative risk sources.  Rather than a consequence of their assessment of evidence about those putative risks, their affective orientations are likely to shape how they interpret evidence and form beliefs (Slovic, Peters, Finucane & MacGregor 2005; Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee & Welch 2001).

One can ask them different questions and elicit responses that reflect people’s affective orientations toward one or another risk.

But that’s really all that one is doing with any of these questions: eliciting a generic pro-con attitude.  It is in fact a mistake—one that non-scholarly opinion pollsters invite all the time to get attention or to try to manipulate public impressions of the public’s view on one or another policy issue—to try to take the wording of particular items at face value or to purport to draw inferences from one or another as opposed to all the items considered as a group.

The reactions of members of the public to childhood vaccines displays all the signatures of the affect heuristic.

Moreover, their affective orientation happens to be very positive in the vast bulk of the U.S. population.  The CCP Report estimated that approximately 80% of the population shares it.

Like the risk-benefit questions generally, the CCP study "let it be" item on existing mandatory vaccine laws elicited a positive response of around 80%.

Like the risk-benefit items, there was not much in the way of systematic variance in the "let it be" item—that is, the reasons why somewhere around 20% or 25% of the population didn’t support existing laws did not admit of meaningful explanation by individual demographic or cultural or political characteristics.

Maybe these are the same 20% or so of the population who indicated that “space aliens” or “time travelers” were involved in the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 last summer.  No idea.

2.  There is an important “however,” however.

Study participants were also asked to consider items relating to specific proposals to alter existing mandatory vaccination laws.

Their responses to these did not evince support consensus for change of any sort.  Indeed, it revealed the striking absence of any particular consensus:

What's more, variance in the participants’ response did reflect differences in the participants’ political outlooks.  Consider this Figure, which uses a multivariate model to estimate the impact of partisan differences, including identifying as a member of the Tea Party, on the responses to the reform items:

The figure illustrates how much more or less an average "liberal Democrat," "Conservative Republican, non--Tea Party member, or  "Conservative Republican, Tea Party member" is to agree with the indicated reform than is the "average" member of the population--and hence how likely each of the former prototypical partisans is to disagree with each of the others.

These differences are modest in relation to those, say, on climate change.  But they aren’t trivial.

Now what to make of this?

Well, if you are thinking there’s some inconsistency between the participants’ responses to these “change the status quo” items and their responses to the “let it be” item, I agree!

My view is that the “change the status quo” items are not measuring the same thing as the "let it be” item. 

Psychometrically speaking, "change the status quo" items don’t “scale” with the “let it be” item or the general battery of risk-benefit items. That’s is, they don’t display the sort of covariance that one would expect if the items were measures of a common latent or unobserved disposition.

It makes more sense to view the "change the status quo" iems as measuring (in a noisy and attenuated form, particularly in relation, to say, climate change) the general attitudes that subjects of varying political outlooks have toward governmental regulations generally.

My view is that most people generally just don’t give much thought to vaccine laws, which (with the exception of the HPV vaccine; I’ll come back to that) have not been a matter of political contestation in American life.

So if one asks members of the public what they think of universal vaccination laws, they express the same warm fuzzy feeling of contentment and gratitude that characterizes their views toward childhood vaccines generally.  These are the sensibilities, I'm confident, that for over a decade in US has lead 90%+ of parents to get all recommended childhood vaccinations for their kids.

Survey questions about changing those law, starts to trigger affective resonances that relate to peoples’ cultural identities.  Like bad survey questions, those questions aren't measuring what people in society are talking about; but they are measuring something: who they are, culturally or politically speaking.

3.  That's an outcome that ought to cause a sense of tremendous apprehension in anyone who actually values the contribution that childhood vaccines make to public health in this country.

The entanglement of issues of risk with antagonistic cultural meanings is precisely what drives polarization on issues like gun control and climate change, where people’s positions are understood to be badges of membership in and loyalty to opposing groups (Kahan 2015, 2012).

This was exactly the dynamic that generated polarization over the HPV vaccine, the only universally recommended vaccine that isn’t part of the schedule of mandatory, school-enrollment vaccinations across the U.S. states (Kahan et al. 2010).

I’ve written extensively, in this blog and elsewhere (Kahan 2013), about the sad career of the HPV vaccine.

But the basic point is that the HPV vaccine suffered this fate b/c its manufacture, Merck, decided to initiate a controversy-inviting nationwide legislative campaign to add the vaccine to the schedule of required vaccinations that states make a condition of school enrollment.

The company did so through what was initially a covert lobbying campaign that featured Governor “Oops” among others—the disclosure of which amplified the controversy the manufacturer was hoping to sidestep when it thrust the vaccine into the political process.

Merck didn’t have to do this. In the normal course, public health administrators, who are largely insulated from politics, would have almost certainly added the vaccine to their states’ requirements, as they had just finished doing for the HBV (hepatitis-b) vaccine, another STD immunization that was made mandatory for adolescents and then infants.

But the manufacture didn’t want to wait, because in extra time it would have taken to get such approval for a boys & girls vaccine added to the state mandatory lists by administrative action, a competitor, GlaxoSmithKline, would have obtained approval for a rival HPV vaccine and been able to compete for lucrative contracts with state school systems.

The risk that launching the HPV vaccine into the political process would disrupt people's ability to assess the risks and benefits of it was clear at the outset.

But Merck (for pefectly predictable, understandable reasons) decided to take a gamble, motivated by its desire to achieve a decisive commercial advantage in marketing the vaccine.

The company lost. 

We all did.

Should we take a similar gamble by taking action that would place childhood vaccinations into the cross-hairs of partisan politics? 

The CCP Report, which reported data similar to what I’ve just presented, discusses the considerations.  I don’t see any point trying to reformulate the conclusion stated there:

In striking contrast to responses to the other items in the survey, the ones soliciting participants’ positions on proposals to restrict non-medical exemptions were characterized by disagreement. Not only did these items tend to divide the respondents. They divided them on political and cultural lines....

[T]hese results supply reason for circumspection on the issue of exemptions. The power of these items to divide groups already conspicuously arrayed against each other on contested science issues raises the possibility that real-world proposals to restrict universal immunization exemptions could do the same. The study’s experimental component, which found that exposure to the “anti-science” op-ed intensified these divisions, reinforces this concern....

Anyone who dismisses the existence or seriousness of unfounded fears of childhood vaccines would be behaving foolishly. Skilled journalists and others have vividly documented enclaves of concerted resistance to universal immunization programs. Experienced practitioners furnish credible reports of higher numbers of parents seeking counsel and assurance of vaccine safety. And valid measures of vaccination coverage and childhood disease outbreaks confirm that the incidence of such outbreaks is higher in the enclaves in which vaccine coverage falls dangerously short of the high rates of vaccination prevailing at the national level (Atwell et al. 2013; Glanz et al. 2013; Omer et al. 2008).

At the same time, only someone insufficiently attuned to the insights and methods of the science of science communication would infer that this threat to public health warrants a large-scale, sweeping “education” or “marketing” campaign aimed at parents generally or at the public at large. The potentially negative consequences of such a campaign would not be limited to the waste of furnishing assurances of safety to large numbers of people who are in no need of it. High-profile, emphatic assurances of safety themselves tend to generate concern. A broad scale and indiscriminant campaign to communicate vaccine safety—particularly if understood to be motivated by a general decline in vaccination rates—could also furnish a cue that cooperation with universal immunizations programs is low, potentially undermining reciprocal motivations to contribute to the public good of herd immunity. Lastly, such a campaign would create an advocacy climate ripe for the introduction of cultural partisanship and recrimination of the sort known to disable citizens’ capacity to recognize valid decision-relevant science generally .....

The right response to dynamics productive of excess concern over risk is empirically informed risk communication strategiestailored to those specific dynamics. Relevant dynamics in this setting include not only those that motivate enclaves of resistance to universal immunization but also those that figure in the concerns of individual parents seeking counsel, as they ought to, from their families’ pediatricians. Risk communication strategies specifically responsive to those dynamics should be formulated—and they should be tested, both in the course of their development and in their administration, so that those engaged in carrying them out can be confident that they are taking steps that are likely to work and can calibrate their approach as they learn more (Sadaf et al. 2013; Opel et al. 2012).

Again, preliminary research of this sort has commended. Perfection of behavioral-prediction profiles of the sort featured in Opel et al. (2011a, 2011b, 2013b) would not only enable researchers to extend understanding of the sources and consequences of genuine vaccine hesitancy but also to test focused risk-communication strategies on appropriate message recipients.  If made sufficiently precise, screening protocols of this sort would also enable practitioners to accurately identify parents in need of counseling public health officials to identify regions where the extent of hesitancy warrants intervention.

The public health establishment should exercise leadership to make health professionals and other concerned individuals and groups appreciate the distinction between targeted strategies of this sort and the ad hoc forms of risk communication that were the focus of this study.  They should help such groups understand in addition that support for the former does not justify either encouragement or tolerance of the latter.

But anyway, you've got the data now.  Draw your own inferences -- from them, and not from the feral risk communication system that we rely on in this country to the detriment of our public health ....

References

Cultural Cognition Project Lab. Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication: An Emprical Analysis. CCP Risk Studies Report No. 17

Kahan, D. Why we are poles apart on climate change. Nature 488, 255 (2012).

Kahan, D., Braman, D., Cohen, G., Gastil, J. & Slovic, P. Who fears the HPV vaccine, who doesn’t, and why? An experimental study of the mechanisms of cultural cognition. Law Human Behav 34, 501-516 (2010).

Kahan, D.M. A risky science communication environment for vaccines. Science 342, 53-54 (2013).

Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 3 (2015).

Loewenstein, G.F., Weber, E.U., Hsee, C.K. & Welch, N. Risk as feelings. Psychological Bulletin 127, 267-287 (2001).

Slovic, P., Peters, E., Finucane, M.L. & MacGregor, D.G. Affect, Risk, and Decision Making. Health Psychology 24, S35-S40 (2005).

 

 

 

 

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Reader Comments (20)

The CCP Report said:

In striking contrast to responses to the other items in the survey, the ones soliciting participants’ positions on proposals to restrict non-medical exemptions were characterized by disagreement. Not only did these items tend to divide the respondents. They divided them on political and cultural lines....

From what I'm seeing, that certainly does not seem to be what is happening as the debate heats up.

Granted, some on the left are trying to make the vaccination debate into a partisan or left-right battle.

Here, for instance, is a post on RightWatch.org: "Beck: Anti-Vaxxers Are Being Persecuted, Just Like Galileo"

It includes a video showing Glenn Beck jumping on the anti-vaccination bandwagon.

Beck, however, is attempting to reach across partisan and ideological lines.

“When it comes to these measles vaccinations we have a lot in common with the left, and we can’t separate ourselves,” Beck says. “We have to reach out to allies and say: ‘OK, I disagree with you on many things, but on this, let’s agree. Let’s move forward on this.”

And it looks like overwhelming majorities on either side of the partisan divide are not buying into the “parental choice” schtick.

Pew Research published the results of a new poll a couple of days ago and by overwhelming margins, almost 2 to 1 for Republicans and over 3 to 1 for Democrats, respondents say parents should NOT be able to decide not to vaccinate their children, and that vaccinations should be required.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

For those interested in the nuts and bolts of the vaccination debate, I highly recommend this from Snopes.com.

Snopes cites this post from ScienceBlogs, which in turn cites this post from The Poxes Blog.

All treat of the efforts of Dr. Andrew Jeremy Wakefield and his minions to pollute the science communication environment on the issue of vaccinations.

And looking at the cinematographic quality of the “documentary” Wakefield made, it appears the business of polluting the science communication environment must be a very lucrative business.

Conspiracy theories, hysteria and histrionics are the alpha and the omega of Wakefield’s rhetorical strategy. As Snopes put it:

What got lost in the brouhaha over Dr. Thompson's "confession," allegations about a "cover-up" at the CDC, and threats of whistleblower lawsuits was what should have been the main point: Did collected data actually prove that the MMR vaccine produces a 340% increased risk of autism in African-American boys? The answer is no, it did not.

The ScienceBlogs post concludes that:

What [Hooker] has done, apparently, is found grist for a perfect conspiracy theory to demonize the CDC, play the race card in a truly despicable fashion, and cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the CDC vaccination program, knowing that most of the white antivaccine activists who support [him] hate the CDC so much that they won't notice that even Hooker's reanalysis doesn’t support their belief that vaccines caused the autism in their children.

The Poxes Blog post concludes:

I mean, Tuskegee and autism, really?

Autism is not syphilis. It cannot be cured with a shot. It cannot be cured, period. It is also not like the Holocaust or genocide, like Wakefield claims toward the end of his little video montage. Autism is not a death sentence. It’s time that parents of autistic children and autistic adults put an end to Andrew Jeremy Wakefield’s lies and his propaganda machine by speaking out against him and by convincing his devout followers not to fund him anymore. After all, if the paper by Hooker and the assertions of the video are true, Wakefield and his “Autism Media Channel” chose to sit on the information in order to make a good video (and maybe even a good buck) while thousands upon thousands of African-American babies continued to receive the MMR vaccine the world over.

Unfortunately, the theories that “medical authorities” like Dr. Andrew Wakefield and Dr. Brian Hooker formulate invariably filter down to the group in San Miguel de Allende that I was once a member of.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

For those interested in the nuts and bolts of the vaccination debate, I highly recommend this from Snopes.com.

It treats of the efforts of Dr. Andrew Jeremy Wakefield and his minions to pollute the science communication environment on the issue of vaccinations.

And looking at the cinematographic quality of the “documentary” Wakefield made, it appears the business of polluting the science communication environment must be a very lucrative business.

Diverting people's attention toward conspiracy theories, along with a healthy dose of hysteria and histrionics, is the alpha and the omega of Wakefield’s rhetorical strategy. As Snopes put it:

What got lost in the brouhaha over Dr. Thompson's "confession," allegations about a "cover-up" at the CDC, and threats of whistleblower lawsuits was what should have been the main point: Did collected data actually prove that the MMR vaccine produces a 340% increased risk of autism in African-American boys? The answer is no, it did not.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

@Glenn

I hope you are right. But we are not merely "observing" here; we are participating.

I see the "heating up" right now mainly as attempts of conflict entrepreneurs to drag childhood vaccines into the cultural-status-conflict vortex.

I see plenty of resistance; that heartens me.

But a Merck-style legislative campaign to "tighten up" would definitely change the stakes...

February 9, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Oops!

Sorry about the double comment.

The first one initially disappeared into cyberspace and didn't appear, so I shortened and re-posted it. Then later, the first comment magically appeared.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

@Glenn:

the CCP blog comment system is run by Hal 9001 series blog-comment moderator. Obviously, then, mistakes such as yours are a result of human error... http://tinyurl.com/9rmek

February 9, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@ Dan Kahan said:

I see the "heating up" right now mainly as attempts of conflict entrepreneurs to drag childhood vaccines into the cultural-status-conflict vortex.

I see plenty of resistance; that heartens me.

Since Dan Kahan always gets to ask questions, one of his fourteen billion virtual students now sallies forth with a question.

Kahan asserts that some “science communication environments” are polluted, and others not.

So here’s my question: "Why is it that some science communications environments get polluted, and others do not?"

The reason certainly isn’t from lack of trying on the part of political and economic entrepreneurs, or "conflict entrepreneurs" as Kahan calls them.

As I stated on an earlier thread, I was once active in a group in San Miguel de Allende (SMA), Mexico, whose membership hails from the extreme far left. And even though I am no longer active in the group, I am still on their mail server list. In the last few months three issues have come up on the mail server list which have been integral to Kahan’s investigation:

1) Global warming
2) The dangers of nuclear power
3) Vaccinations

Global warming is not too interesting here, because the stance of the SMA group on that issue is consistent with the scientific consensus. But on the other two issues -- the dangers of nuclear power and vaccinations -- their stances are at odds with the scientific consensus.

And what I have observed over the past few months is the SMA group is desperately attempting to pollute the science communications environment surrounding vaccinations, the same way it and others have polluted the science communications environment surrounding the issue of nuclear power.

Prominent members of the SMA group use the same type of arguments when debating both the nuclear and vaccination issues, riddled with the same logical fallacies and rhetorical slights of hand. But in the case of vaccinations the arguments haven’t worked. The larger left-leaning cultural community just isn’t buying into their schtick when it comes to vaccinations, the way it has on nuclear power. Why?

And, needless to say, this has caused those members of the SMA group no small amount of anger and frustration.

For instance, last Thursday the Democracy Now news anchor, Amy Goodman, did a one-hour program on the issue of vaccinations, Inside the Vaccine War: Measles Outbreak Rekindles Debate on Autism, Parental Choice & Public Health :

We spend the hour discussing the vaccine debate and public health with three guests: Dorit Rubinstein Reiss is a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and co-author of the report, "Funding the Costs of Disease Outbreaks Caused by Non-Vaccination"; Mary Holland is the mother of a child with regressive autism who, she believes, was injured by the MMR vaccine. She is also a research scholar at New York University School of Law and co-editor of the book, "Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children"; and Dr. Paul Offit is chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of "Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure" and "Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All."

The more outspoken members of the SMA group concluded that Amy Goodman, who is normally a darling of the left, had taken the enemy’s side, and thus subjected her to a hail of ad hominem attacks.

One male (I note gender here, because with this group gender is always a big thing) member of the SMA group, for instance, accuses Goodman of being a part of a larger media conspiracy. Mitchel Cohen charges:

[T]here are indeed conspiracies afoot here -- conspiracies to try to corner markets, maximize profits, and manufacture and manipulate public concerns. For instance:

WHY is this issue smashing into us from every news program and in every media, now (including FOX news)?

Why, when it comes to vaccines and other so-called scientific or medical claims, do so many Leftists (which is what I'm concerned with, since I am a radical leftist too) salivate on queue like Pavolovian dogs, forgetting to ask "What is going on right now with the vaccine manufacturers like Merck that is causing them to manufacture hysteria and throw up a smokescreen?"

Why didn't Amy Goodman do her homework on this matter, before allowing Paul Offit -- a designer and patent-holder of a particular vaccine with numerous deaths attributed it -- to dictate the format of her show and avoid the potentially explosive scrutiny of opponents of mandatory measles vaccination?

Furthermore, why did neither Amy Goodman nor most of the Left mention that a judge recently ruled that the giant Merck pharmaceutical corporation -- manufacturers of the MMR vaccine being heavily pushed for measles -- has to stand trial for falsifying data on the mumps component in the MMR vaccine? Does she really think this "minor detail" has nothing to do with the sudden media hype, taking advantage of a measles outbreak linked to Disneyland, of a kind that occurs periodically every few years?

Two years ago, several whistleblowers brought a lawsuit, mentioned above, against Merck.

As reported in Health Impact News, this week, "U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II ruled that the whistleblowers had sufficiently pled that Merck might have provided false statements to the government and that the direct purchasers had shown enough evidence to establish that these falsehoods could have helped the company gain a monopoly.

"Most people in the U.S. do not even realize that U.S. law prevents anyone damaged by vaccines from suing the manufacturer. In 1986, Congress passed a law preventing legal liability to vaccine damages, because the drug companies manufacturing vaccines blackmailed them, by threatening to stop manufacturing vaccines without legal protection. There were so many lawsuits resulting from vaccine injuries and deaths prior to this time, that it was no longer profitable for them to continue marketing vaccines without legal protection. So instead of Congress requiring that drug companies manufacture safer vaccines, they complied with the drug companies’ requests and passed legislation protecting the drug companies. In 2011 this law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court."

- See more at: http://healthimpactnews.com/2014/judge-lawsuit-against-mercks-mmr-vaccine-fraud-to-continue/#sthash.wn2KPsjh.dpuf

How is it that Leftists forget their analysis of how capitalism works, and suddeny put aside their skepticism to become part of the greater American propagandizers for giant corporations?


Another member of the SMA group, a female doctor, challenged the above claim. “Yes, I agree that there should be a debate and vaccines should be made as safe as possible,” she rejoined. “But let's not feed hysteria with conspiracy theories.”

To this Cohen blasts back: “The conspiracies are real, and you ought to retract this sentence. Who's to say that you are not promoting a conspiracy theory yourself -- that of the capitalist pharmaceutical industry.”

And then there’s this email from one of the members of the SMA group, also a male mind you:

Amy deferred to the doctor. It's bad enough she had on two pro-vaccine speakers. But Amy announced the main pro-vaccine doctor, Paul Offit, had refused to debate any non-scientist. Not only did Amy agree to this elitist rationale but she had him on last, allowing him to have the last word.

Amy should be deluged with letters: Since when does she let partriarchical elitist males dictate the format of her program?. Although the vaccine critic, Mary Holland, isn't a doctor she clearly has done a lot of research on the subject -- she is a research scholar at NYU School of Law and is co-editor of the book, Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children. And she is the mother of a child with regressive autism who, she believes, was injured by the MMR vaccination. She undoubtedly could have answered the Authority [authoritatively].
Amy's was a concession to the worst kind of chauvinist elitism. The pro-vaccine doctor was obviously afraid to debate -- and was allowed the last word. CNN could have done a better job. Nothing was said about the economic interests of makers of vaccines.

Worse than the content was Amy genuflection to this sexist male doctor, the "man of science." Who is to say that the researcher had not read the literature that the pro-vaccine person claimed was definitive, and was prepared to challenge it? Amy should be ashamed of herself. Amy did an infomercial for vaccines and called it a "debate."

So we have layer upon layer of irony here as one male unmercifully blasts a female, accusing her of pandering to another male, the other male of course being a “sexist male doctor.” The gist of the argument seems to be that Goodman is pandering to the wrong male, and should instead be pandering to him, in which case everything would be OK.

Cohen, failing to get any traction with the left, decided to cross the cultural Rubicon and seek solidarity with the extreme right:

Well, here's a source I don't usually quote from (for good reason). But given Democracy Now's completely one-sided report on vaccines Thursday morning, it's pretty clear (at least to me) that this is an issue that really needs full disclosure and discussion, as some of us have been already having on several lists including Science for the People and ActionGreens.

Cohen then goes on to copy and paste this article from the Accuracy in Media (AIM) website: “Can you handle the truth about vaccines?” The article begins by stating:

NBC accuses Republicans of accepting bad “science” on vaccines, while Fox News fires back, accusing liberals of spreading bad “science” on vaccines. Each side is trying to score partisan political points. The message from both sides is that vaccines are completely safe. But that message is absolutely and demonstrably false.

For those who may not recall who AIM is, Wikipedia recounts the history of how:

AIM received a substantial amount of funding from Richard Mellon Scaife…to investigate allegations that President Bill Clinton was connected to the suicide of Vincent Foster. AIM contended that "Foster was murdered", which is contrary to three independent reports including one by Kenneth Starr. AIM faulted the media for not picking up on the conspiracy.

This crossover from one ideological extreme to the other harkens back to something Eric Hoffer discovered. As Wikipedia explains, a core principle in The True Believer is

Hoffer's assertion that mass movements are interchangeable: in the Germany of the 1920s and '30s the Communists and Nazis were ostensibly enemies but routinely swapped members as they competed for the same kind of marginalized, angry people and fanatical Communists became Nazis and vice-versa. Almost two thousand years previously, Saul, a fanatical persecutor of Christians, became Paul, a Christian. For the "true believer," Hoffer argued that substance of any particular group is less important than being part of an energized movement.

Another male member of the SMA group cites an article, “The Binary Madness of the Vaccine Controversy,” which argues that:

The core of the problem is that, even though the matter is complex and multifaceted, we’re presented only with a binary choice. The binary choice seems to be either you (a) accept the all government’s arguments and the government’s schedule of vaccinations, or (b) reject them in their entirety. There seems to be no acceptable legitimacy to any other position.

The rhetorical strategy the author employs here is what the psychologist Andrew M. Lobaczewski in Political Ponerology calls “reversive blockade”:

Reversive blockade: Emphatically insisting upon something which is the opposite of the truth blocks the average person’s mind from perceiving the truth. In accordance with the dictates of healthy common sense, he starts searching for meaning in the “golden mean” between the truth and its opposite, winding up with some satisfactory counterfeit. People who think like this do not realize that this effect is precisely the intent of the person who subjects them to this method….

This method is a pathocratic favorite used on the mass scale, driving the minds of average people into a dead end because, as a result, it causes them to search for truth in the “golden mean” between the reality and its opposite.

Jonathan Latham, co-founder of two anti-GM food websites, Bioscience Resource Project and Independent Science News, joined the fray with this in response to another female emailer who had challenged Cohen:

My take on this issue (as a virologist) is that there are genuine and scientific reasons to have concern about vaccines in general, and specific reasons to have concern about certain individual ones. There have been vaccine disasters and near-misses. For example, several million Americans have the virus SV40 which they got from a contaminated vaccine. (SV stands for Simian Virus). The biological consequences of SV40 virus are unknown. But the point is the risks of vaccines are real and incontrovertible and can hardly be denied.

At the same time there are companies hoping to make a lot of money from vaccines who would like these risks to be buried. Therefore, they have attempted to smear people (both in the science press and the mainstream media) who raise the issue of vaccine safety as anti-science, as idiots, as zealots, etc. No doubt some of them are. But Mitchel Cohen has shown, in my opinion, that he is not one of those people and that he has tried to answer questions fairly and impersonally.

Unfortunately, some of the questions he has had to answer have been unrelated to what he has claimed and/or have implied he holds views that he apparently does not. I can only presume, therefore that a lot of people on this list have fallen for the smear campaigns of the industry. These campaigns are sophisticated and very malicious but I did hope that people on this list would be more interested in investigating the genuine scientific issues rather than trying to show that Mitchel Cohen must be a "troll" or some other ill-informed person.

No one for example asked me about SV40 or about the book "The River" when I raised them when this discussion started, nor was interested in the CDC accusations, which are obviously relevant. Yet these, I do believe, are the interesting issues, not whether or not Mitchel Cohen, is "anti-science". So, can we please debate the merits and safety of vaccines and not the merits of Mr Cohen?

Then we might educate ourselves, rather than be used as the tools of the vaccine industry.

To conclude, let me just state that it seems to me that understanding how and why it is that some science communications environments become polluted, and others do not, would be the first step in designing preventative measures to keep science communications environments from becoming polluted, or in unpolluting those which have become polluted.

And I know all I described above is terribly anecdotal, but it seems to me it comes much closer to people's everyday experiences than what polling data does.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

@Glenn--

believe me, I don't know why some & not others. Anyone who says that they are confident they do is betraying lack of curiosity & aversion to complexity. We need lots of informed & inspired conjectures -- & lots of teseting of the same.

February 9, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Grist for the mill?

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/05/us/politics/rand-paul-linked-to-association-of-american-physicians-and-surgeons.html?_r=1

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshsua

sure. But what mill?

February 9, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

At this point I don't know!

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Glenn -

==> "To conclude, let me just state that it seems to me that understanding how and why it is that some science communications environments become polluted, and others do not, would be the first step in designing preventative measures to keep science communications environments from becoming polluted, or in unpolluting those which have become polluted."

Two thoughts for consideration. The first is that it's pretty random. I don't think that there has to be some "rational" explanation - except that people are generalizing from unrepresentative sampling machines in search of polarizing issues so that they can reinforce their sense of self by identifying inferior others.

The second is that I question whether it is meaningful to distinguish science communication environments from any other of myriad polarized communicative environments. Yes - some questions of science get sucked into a mechanism of ideological polarization and some don't, but I don't think that the attribute of being scientific environments is particularly salient...any environment where opinion can be readily interchanged with fact will do. What's key is that they are "wicked" issues that people can use as ink blots to see what they want to see.


==> "And I know all I described above is terribly anecdotal, but it seems to me it comes much closer to people's everyday experiences than what polling data does."

Anecdotal is good as a way of exploring what is only<.i> anecdotal (and not representative)...but what do you mean by it coming closer to people's experiences than polling data?

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@ Joshua said:

...what do you mean by it coming closer to people's experiences than polling data?

Basically what you said, that polling data is great at measuring "what is," but I don't think it has much explanatory power when it comes to explaining "why" it is, or "how" it got to be that way.

@ Joshua said:

....people are generalizing from unrepresentative sampling machines in search of polarizing issues so that they can reinforce their sense of self by identifying inferior others.

That sounds a lot like Andrew M. Lobaczewski writing in his book, Political Ponerology.

Lobaczewski asserts that the pollution of the science communication environment is caused by what he calls “spellbinders.” He says these people “are generally the carriers of various pathological factors, some characteropathies, and some inherited anomalies." The most common is schizoidia, or schizoidal psychopathy.

Carriers of this anomaly are hypersensitive and distrustful, while, at the same time, pay little attention to the feelings of others. They tend to assume extreme positions, and are eager to retaliate for minor offenses. Sometimes they are eccentric and odd. Their poor sense of psychological situation and reality leads them to superimpose erroneous, pejorative interpretations upon other people’s intentions. They easily become involved in activities which are ostensibly moral, but which actually inflict damage upon themselves and others…. [B]ecause of their one-sidedness, they tend to consider themselves intellectually superior to “ordinary” people.

But as Lobaczewski goes on to warn, spellbinders can have an overpowering effect on otherwise normal people:

Their tendency to see human reality in the doctrinaire and simplistic manner they consider “proper” – i.e. “black and white” – transforms their frequently good intentions into bad results. However, their ponerogenic role can have macrosocial implications if their attitude toward human reality and their tendency to invent great doctrines are put to paper and duplicated in large editions.

In spite of their typical deficits, or even an openly schizoidal declaration, their readers do not realize what the authors’ characters are really like….

To individuals with various psychological deviations, the social structure dominated by normal people and their conceptual world appears to be a “system of force and oppression.” Psychopaths reach such a conclusion as a rule. If, at the same time, a good deal of injustice does in fact exist in a given society, pathological feelings of unfairness and suggestive statements emanating from deviants can resonate among those who have truly been treated unfairly. Revolutionary doctrines may then be easily propagated among both groups, although each group has completely different reasons for favoring such ideas.

So what is one to do about the spellbinders? Here’s Lobaczewski remedy:

We should point out that the erroneous thought processes described herein also, as a rule, violate the laws of logic with characteristic treachery. Educating people in the art of proper reasoning can thus serve to counter such tendencies; it has a hallowed age-old tradition which seems to have been insufficiently effective for centuries. As an example: according to the laws of logic, a question containing an erroneous or unconfirmed suggestion has no answer. Nevertheless, not only does operating with such questions become epidemic among people with a tendency to conversive thinking, and a source of terror when used by psychopathic individuals; it also occurs among people who think normally, or even those who have studied logic.

This decreasing tendency in a society’s capacity for proper thought should be counteracted, since it also lowers the immunity to ponerogenic processes. An effective measure would be teaching both proper thought and skillful detection of errors in thought. The front of such education should be expanded, including psychology, psychopathology, and the science described herein, for the purpose of raising people who can easily detect any paralogism.

In order to comprehend ponerogenic pathways of contagion, especially those acting in a wider social context, let us observe the roles and personalities of individuals we shall call “spellbinders”, who are highly active in this area in spite of their statistically negligible number.

Spellbinders are generally the carriers of various pathological factors, some characteropathies, and some inherited anomalies. Individuals with malformations of their personalities frequently play similar roles, although the social scale of influence remains small (family or neighborhood) and does not cross certain boundaries of decency.

Spellbinders are characterized by pathological egotism. Such a person is forced by some internal causes to make an early choice between two possibilities: the first is forcing other people to think and experience things in a manner similar to his own; the second is a feeling of being lonely and different, a pathological misfit in social life. Sometimes the choice is either snake-charming or suicide.

Triumphant repression of self-critical or unpleasant concepts from the field of consciousness gradually gives rise to the phenomena of conversive thinking, or paralogistics, paramoralisms, and the use of reversion blockades. They stream so profusely from the mind and mouth of the spellbinder that they flood the average person’s mind. Everything becomes subordinated to the spellbinder’s overcompensatory conviction that they are exceptional, sometimes even messianic. An ideology emerges from this conviction, true in part, whose value is supposedly superior. However, if we analyze the exact functions of such an ideology in the spellbinder’s personality, we perceive that it is nothing other than a means of self-charming, useful for repressing those tormenting self-critical associations into the subconscious. The ideology’s instrumental role in influencing other people also serves the spellbinder’s needs.

The spellbinder believes that he will always find converts to his ideology, and most often, they are right. However, they feel shock (or even paramoral indignation) when it turns out that their influence extends to only a limited minority, while most people’s attitude to their activities remains critical, pained and disturbed. The spellbinder is thus confronted with a choice: either withdraw back into his void or strengthen his position by improving the effectiveness of his activities.

The spellbinder places on a high moral plane anyone who has succumbed to his influence and incorporated the experimental method he imposes. He showers such people with attention and property, if possible. Critics are met with “moral” outrage. It can even be proclaimed that the compliant minority is in fact the moral majority, since it professes the best ideology and honors a leader whose qualities are above average.

Such activity is always necessarily characterized by the inability to foresee its final results, something obvious from the psychological point of view because its substratum contains pathological phenomena, and both spellbinding and self-charming make it impossible to perceive reality accurately enough to foresee results logically. However, spellbinders nurture great optimism and harbor visions of future triumphs similar to those they enjoyed over their own crippled souls. It is also possible for optimism to be a pathological symptom.

In a healthy society, the activities of spellbinders meet with criticism effective enough to stifle them quickly. However, when they are preceded by conditions operating destructively upon common sense and social order; such as social injustice, cultural backwardness, or intellectually limited rulers sometimes manifesting pathological traits, spellbinders’ activities have led entire societies into large-scale human tragedy.

Such an individual fishes an environment or society for people amenable to his influence, deepening their psychological weaknesses until they finally join together in a ponerogenic union. On the other hand, people who have maintained their healthy critical faculties intact, based upon their own common sense and moral criteria, attempt to counteract the spellbinders’ activities and their results. In the resulting polarization of social attitudes, each side justifies itself by means of moral categories. That is why such commonsense resistance is always accompanied by some feeling of helplessness and deficiency of criteria.

The awareness that a spellbinder is always a pathological individual should protect us from the known results of a moralizing interpretation of pathological phenomena, ensuring us an objective criterion for more effective action. Explaining what kind of pathological substratum is hidden behind a given instance of spellbinding activities should enable a modern solution to such situations.

It is a characteristic phenomenon that a high IQ generally helps a person to be more immune to spellbinding activities only to a moderate degree. Actual differences in the formation of human attitudes to the influence of such activities should be attributed to other properties of human nature. The most decisive factor in assuming a critical attitude is good basic intelligence, which conditions our perception of psychological reality. We can also observe how a spellbinder’s activities “husk out” amenable individuals with an astonishing regularity….

We shall give the name “ponerogenic association” to any group of people characterized by ponerogenic processes of above-average intensity, wherein the carriers of various pathological factors function as inspirers, spellbinders, and leaders, and where a proper pathological social structure operates. Smaller, less permanent associations may be called “groups” or “unions.”….

One phenomenon all ponerogenic groups and associations have in common is the fact that their members lose (or have already lost) the capacity to perceive pathological individuals as such, interpreting their behavior in a fascinated, heroic, or melodramatic way. The opinions, ideas, and judgments of people carrying various psychological deficits are endowed with an importance at least equal to that of outstanding individuals among normal people….

When a ponerogenic process encompasses a society’s entire ruling class, or nation, or when opposition from normal people is stifled – as a result of the mass character of the phenomenon, or by using spellbinding means and physical compulsion, including censorship – we are dealing with a macrosocial ponerologic phenomenon.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

@ Joshua said:

I question whether it is meaningful to distinguish science communication environments from any other of myriad polarized communicative environments. Yes - some questions of science get sucked into a mechanism of ideological polarization and some don't, but I don't think that the attribute of being scientific environments is particularly salient...any environment where opinion can be readily interchanged with fact will do. What's key is that they are "wicked" issues that people can use as ink blots to see what they want to see.

Yes, but it is science which claims not to be ideological.

That, plus as Robert H. Nelson says, that "Since the eighteenth century...the authority of God as a source of absolute truth of the world -- the essence of the historic claim to authority of Jewish and Christian religion -- has been superceded in many areas of society by the rise of science," puts science in a league all by itself.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

Glenn -

Geebus. Is there anything that anyone could say for which you don't have a quote?

Re: Lobaczewski - as Dan reminds me almost daily, it's a mistake for me to try to generalize from a sample comprised of blog fanatics.

Most blog arguments that I see generally can be boiled down to: "Those who disagree with me about issue X,Y,Z are sociopaths" (e.g., are indifferent to millions of poor children starving in Africa).

If, at the same time, a good deal of injustice does in fact exist in a given society, pathological feelings of unfairness and suggestive statements emanating from deviants can resonate among those who have truly been treated unfairly. Revolutionary doctrines may then be easily propagated among both groups, although each group has completely different reasons for favoring such ideas.

Heh. Reminds me of this clip that I posted the other day to represent my view of the bickering about the term "denier" from people who regularly compare those who disagree with them about climate change to psychopaths:

Start at 0.42 seconds in. There is a real infraction - but the response takes on a life of its own:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=3I65Lqjh4fo#t=43

Usually, the fans of the different players involved have diametric views on who broke the rules.

"Educating people in the art of proper reasoning can thus serve to counter such tendencies; "

I'm like a broken record posting that on this here blog. NiV and I even agree on it!

it has a hallowed age-old tradition which seems to have been insufficiently effective for centuries.

The problem is that instruction in critical thinking doesn't transfer particularly well, IMO. It is largely context specific.

The description of "spellbinders" sounds a lot like narcissists.

Interesting point about why issues related to science may well be more susceptible to the kind of polarization I was describing - because science in a sense has been offered as an alternative to religion.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan,

Let me check my interpretation of your figures vis-a-vis attitudes about exemptions to childhood vaccination laws. Specifically the "eliminate nonmedical exemptions" question which asks:
"I think states should eliminate all non-medical exemptions to childhood vaccination laws". Agree or disagee?

The first chart shows that the general population is close to a 50/50 split on the "eliminate nonmedical exemptions" statement. For the sake of easy math let me assume the numbers are 50% agree and 50% disagree.

Working down the next chart of data "derived via monte carlo simulation". It shows the Lib. Dem. category, for example, as 10% more likely to agree with "eliminate nonmedical exemptions" statement than the population mean.

OK, here is THE BIG QUESTION: Assuming the population mean is .5
THEREFOR: 55% of Lib. Dems. agree with the statement? ( .5 * 1.1 = .55)

If not then please how do we do the math?

February 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCortlandt Wilson

@Cortland:

Not quite. The second

figure illustrates how much more or less an average "liberal Democrat," "Conservative Republican, non--Tea Party member, or "Conservative Republican, Tea Party member" [is to agree with] the indicated reform than [is] the "average" member of the population

So for "eliminate nonmedical exemptions":

Population mean ≈ 0.5.
avg "Lib dem" ≈ 0.1 [+/-5%, LC = 0.95] > population mean.
0.5+0.1 = 0.6

So "Lib dem" ≈ 0.6 (+/- 5%) likely to support "eliminate nonmedical exemptions."

Clear(er)?

Have made indicated adjustments to the text to try to underscore that estimates for individuals with specified outlooks are relative to population mean response.

Thanks as always for the editorial suggestions! (I study science communication for a living but doing it is only a hobby).

February 10, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Joshua said:

....as Dan reminds me almost daily, it's a mistake for me to try to generalize from a sample comprised of blog fanatics.

Yes. That's true when we're trying to determine 'what is.' I would agree that high quality polling is much better for this purpose than anecdotal information.

But the value of polling data is mostly as a tool to determine 'what is.' It has little value in explaining how or why 'what is' came to be what it is.

And the fanaticism goes way beyond just "blog fanatics." We're bombarded by messages from these folks daily, not only in cyberspace but in the mass media -- newspapers, television, radio, magazines, public relations campaigns, advertising campaigns, etc. And this is especially true if their fanaticism happens to coincide with commercial interests.

In addition, if one happens to be a member of a group like the SMA group, one gets bombarded with the fanaticism in one's daily life. It becomes very intimate and personal, a one-on-one type of thing. It also becomes a marker and a criteria to demonstrate group loyalty and solidarity.

I for one happen to believe that one's biographies, and especially one's own autobiography, are significant in shaping one's beliefs and one's identity. Anecdotal information -- one's own experiences, biographies and narratives -- is important, and you will see it recounted in many psychological and psychoanalytical studies.

February 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

Dan -

I assume you'e seen this?:

http://news.osu.edu/news/2015/02/09/both-liberals-conservatives-can-have-science-bias/

Unfortunately, their approach to climate science is no better than previous studies at addressing the criticism that it is is inherently biased to assume that there isn't "a great deal of disagreement among scientists about whether or not climate change is primarily caused by human activities "

Anyway, hers's the more interesting part;

One of the more distressing findings of the study was that these polarizing issues made both sides lose some trust in science, Garrett said.

Hmmm.

I have an inkling you might have something to say about that!

February 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@ Joshua

Great video clip which shows how players feign injury. And your comment about how "Usually, the fans of the different players involved have diametric views on who broke the rules" is also spot on.

In addition to this, I'm sure you're aware of the work of David Berreby and his book Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, Henri Tajfel who discovered that he could trigger us-versus-them thinking merely by assigning people to arbitrary groups, and Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues and the Robert's Cave experiment.

But in spite of all this, is it possible to think there is more to the human condition than a sporting event? And should one be careful so as not to fall into the trap of moral and epistemological relativism and constructivism, even though, admittedly, these belief systems are very popular in the academe these days, and are at the heart of the "Science Wars"?

Lobaczewski did touch on the phenomenon you describe when he wrote:

Such an individual fishes an environment or society for people amenable to his influence, deepening their psychological weaknesses until they finally join together in a ponerogenic union. On the other hand, people who have maintained their healthy critical faculties intact, based upon their own common sense and moral criteria, attempt to counteract the spellbinders’ activities and their results. In the resulting polarization of social attitudes, each side justifies itself by means of moral categories. That is why such commonsense resistance is always accompanied by some feeling of helplessness and deficiency of criteria.

Now granted, the powerful passions which motivate much of our behavior do seem to have evolved through the process of group selection. Jonathan Haidt, I believe, is spot on when in The Happiness Hypothesis he asserts:

Moral diversity…is essentially what Durkheim described as anomie: a lack of consensus on moral norms and values. Once you make this distinction, you see that nobody can coherently even want moral diversity. If you are pro-choice on the issue of abortion, would you prefer that there be a wide variety of opinions and no dominant one? Or would you prefer that everyone agree with you and the laws of the land reflect that agreement? If you prefer diversity on an issue, the issue is not a moral issue for you: it is a matter of personal choice….

[T]he most important lesson I have learned in my twenty years of research on morality is that nearly all people are morally motivated. Selfishness is a powerful force, particularly in the decisions of individuals, but whenever groups of people come together to make a sustained effort to change the world, you can bet that they are pursuing a vision of virtue, justice, or sacredness. Material self-interest does little to explain the passions of partisans on issues such as abortion, the environment, or the role of religion in public life. (Self-interest certainly cannot explain terrorism, but the selflessness made possible by group selection can.)

But I would argue that, above and beyond groupism, there seems to exist a morality which transcends the provincialism of the single group. “Every vital ethics,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, requires a “universalism” which is “transcendent,” that rises above the parochial identification with the group.

And regardless of what the social Darwinists, selfish gene theorists, Marxists and German racial scientists would have us believe, this transcendent morality is not antithetical to evolutionary science.

The notion of a transcendental morality, however, does challenge popular and orthodox perceptions of evolutionary science.

Probably no field of science has been abused and corrupted more for the purposes of political and economic instrumentality than evolutionary science. "Ideological scientificality," as Hannah Arendt called it, served as the basis of all the dominant ideologies of the 20th century.

At the funeral of Karl Marx in 1883, for instance, Friedrich Engels would eulogize that “just as Darwin discovered the law of the evolution of organic nature, so Marx discovered the evolutionary law of human history.” For Marx it was the fittest economic class that survived. His ideology "interprets history as an economic struggle of classes," notes Arendt. National Socialism also believed in groupism, but it "interprets history as a natural fight of races," she adds.

For liberals, social Darwinists, selfish gene theorists and neo-liberals, on the other hand, the group has nothing to do with it. It's all about the individual, and it is the fittest individual that survived.

With all this debauchery of evolutionary science having taken place, it is no wonder that the field now has a horrible black eye in the academe. The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson wrote of his own experiences with other academics in Evolution for Everyone. He, along with a scholar of English lit, Jonathan Gottschall, co-authored a book, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of the Narrative. “When we tried to find a publisher for this volume,” he relates, “I received my own taste of how the academic world can rival religious creationism in its fear and intolerance of evolution.”

Wilson quotes Gottschall as saying:

I quickly learned that when I spoke of human behavior, psychology, and culture in evolutionary terms, their minds churned through an instant and unconscious process of translation, and they heard ‘Hitler,’ ‘Galton,’ ‘Spencer,’ ‘IQ differences,’ ‘holocaust,’ ‘racial phrenology,’ ‘forced sterilization,’ ‘genetic determinism,’ … A close female acquaintance seemed to speak for the whole seminar when she turned to me, shaking her head with a mixture of sadness, pity, and stubborn hope: ‘You can’t really believe that, Jon, can you?’

But, as Wilson goes on to assert in Darwin’s Cathedral, the existence of a transcendent morality can be explained with evolutionary science:

Within-group selection [individual-level selection] by itself creates a world without morality in which individuals merely use each other to maximize their fitness. Group selection creates a moral world within groups but doesn’t touch the world of between-group interactions, which remain exactly as instrumental as within-group interactions in the absence of group selection. Moral conduct among groups can evolve in principle, but only by extending the hierarchy to include groups of groups. This possibility is not as far-fetched as it may appear. Remember that individual organisms are already groups of groups of groups, if the emerging paradigm of major transitions is correct.

And if a transcendent morality does indeed exist, does it not follow that an immorality, or “paramorality” as Lobaczewski calls it, can also exist?

February 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

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