“Messing with nature”: a worldview

Dear Anti-Vaxxers: You Want Pure Nature? OK, Die Young“, opines Jeffrey Kluger in a scathing piece in Time published today.

The article quotes an interview in Mother Jones with Dr. Stacia Kenet Lansman, a Tufts-graduated MD pediatrician, homeopath, herbalist, energy healer, and anti-vaxxer sympathizer who fears that vaccines are somehow disturbing the balance of nature and contributing to the rise of diseases like autism:

“I think we’re just messing with nature, and we really don’t know what we’ve created. We’ve reduced or largely eliminated many infectious diseases. But in their place, we have an epidemic of chronic illnesses in children. The incidence of asthma, allergies, and autism spectrum disorders has dramatically increased since the 1990s. And the reason for this we don’t know. But my concern is that vaccines have played a role.”

She spins her support of lax vaccination policies as “open-minded.” I see the view as falling in a long tradition of close-minded conservatism.

There are two separate aspects to this kind of worldview.

The first is an “appeal to nature.” This rhetorical device implies that if something is natural, then it is good. If something is unnatural, then it is bad. The “logic” is pervasive and extends to a preference not just for nature, but for the status quo in human society. The “status quo bias” afflicts human decisions almost by default, perhaps, according to “system justification theory,” due to a psychological need for stability in ones experience of life.

An appeal to nature can be a useful rule of thumb to determining what is good or useful, until one starts dismissing or ignoring contrary evidence. To do so would committing a fallacy of sweeping generalization. To ignore evidence is to become an ideologue. The key issue that separate the reasonable people and the crazies is determining when the evidence is good enough for you to believe something.

That brings us to the second aspect of this worldview I’m trying to describe: noncredulity. Noncredulity is exemplified by the following quote from former Congressman Willard Duncan a century ago, which originated Missouri’s sobriquet of the “Show-Me state”:

“I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

Subscribers to this worldview are reluctant to believe something in the absence of adequate evidence.

By itself, noncredulity does not point to either conservative or progressive thinking. Noncredulity without a bias towards or against the natural could manifest as agnosticism or ambivalence. Noncredulous people with an irrational predisposition against the status quo could include extremist demagogues, paranoid anarchists, or hipsters who disavow anything mainstream. In contrast, unshakable noncredulity combined with a strong preference for what is natural or the status quo creates the special kind of conservative worldview espoused by Dr. Kenet Lansman.

Noncredulity and a strong bias towards a certain ideology is Donald Rumsfeld proclaiming there are “unknown unknowns” so we should invade Iraq in the absence of any evidence for or against WMD, just in case, because that’s what all my neo-conservative advisors say is right.

Noncredulity and ideological bias is Ann Coulter asserting that there is no credible or definitive evidence for evolution all while depicting intelligence design as serious “science.”

Noncredulity and ideological bias is a G. W. Bush aide tampering with government climate reports to sprinkle in phrases like “significant and fundamental uncertainties” about global warming, resigning after being outed, and then promptly getting re-hired by the fossil fuel lobby that he came from.

The extremes of noncredulity is denialism, including such mind-boggling phenomena as Holocaust denialism, AIDS denialism, and tobacco industry advertisements sowing seeds of doubt against the link between smoking and lung cancer.

The don’t-mess-with-nature anti-vaxxers are not ideologues like most of these examples in the traditional, political sense of the term. But I do think they are subscribing to a similar kind of thinking, one that happens to over-value one’s fears and current subjective experience of the world against contrary evidence.

My bias is towards the opposite. I’m a transhumanist, an early adopter, and an agitator. A few examples will suffice.

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