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When knowledge isn’t enough

We invented the concept of “knowledge” to do a job. We wanted a way to pluck out of the swirling mass of our beliefs the ones that are reliable enough to risk acting on.

The problem is that knowledge doesn’t come with identifying marks such as the red “mustache” that allows us to tell a male from a female pileated woodpecker. Rather, we’ve had to come up with processes that generate opinions worthy of being believed, and that we can question to determine if a particular assertion is true. In geometry, that meant deductive proofs. In the sciences, we have the scientific method. In law, we have rules of evidence and the instructions given juries. And so on.

Making knowledge work

Over time, the rules we developed governing the inquiries and arguments about beliefs became nuanced and sophisticated. Each domain has at least informal rules about what counts as evidence, who gets to challenge a belief, how certain we need to be to bestow a belief with the mantle of knowledge, where knowledge is published, who gets to see it, and the processes by which purported knowledge can be revised.

Our species has certainly flourished with this approach. Yet the system never worked quite as well as we hoped and thought. People believe terrible, wrong, damaging things even though knowledge is there and is available to them. For example, even after the ablest practitioners of knowledge have made every argument and presented every scrap of evidence, still some people deny human activity is contributing significantly to climate change. “Anti-vaxxers” won’t  get their children inoculated against deadly diseases. And let’s not go into the so-called “flat earthers.”

When confronted with behavior that seems to make no sense, my mother used to ask: “What do they get out of it?” For example, flat earthers get something to talk about that they think makes them look cleverer than the sheeple who simply accept what they’re told. (Pardon my bias.)

So, what do we do about this? If some anti-vaxxers get comfort and a sense of agency out of their beliefs, then knowledge will not undo their beliefs. We know this because they have rejected the best claims of knowledge. So, what will move them?

The social process

We can trot out the evidence, the studies, the consequences of choosing wrongly. Just about by definition that won’t work with anti-vaxxers because their processes of coming to belief are impervious to the results of the institution of science: They may believe in science but at least some of them think that in this case, the institutional processes of science have been suborned by Big Pharma. We pro-vaxxers believe both in science and in the integrity of the universities and labs doing the research and the peer-reviewed journals publishing that research. We don’t believe in these institutions absolutely, but when they speak so strongly in a single voice, we are strongly inclined to accept their claims.

That’s why calling anti-vaxxers “anti-science” has no effect. They think they are being rigorously scientific by cutting through corrupt scientific institutions, just as anti-smoking advocates did in the 1950s and 1960s when they disputed “scientific” studies funded by the tobacco industry. The anti-vaxxers’ are not saying that science is a fraud, but that it’s a fraud about this issue.

But I think they are actually anti-science. Science is not the scientific method. It is a social process by which we come to probabilistic belief based on processes and institutions that vet, filter, criticize, and revise the work of scientists. Take away those processes and institutions, and science goes away as a way in which we learn, and build on what we’ve learned. But that won’t change an anti-vaxxer’s mind. It just turns it into an argument over the definition of the word “science.”

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