Dang Amy, Tell Me How You Really Feel!

Amy Tuteur has a great post about “Pseudo-knowledge” up on her blog.  She goes to town on vaccine rejectionists, alternative medicine advocates, and home birth advocates for getting their information on the internet but having no actual medical knowledge.

It is certainly true that advocates of alternative health have often done a great deal of reading. And it is true that they have learned lots of new things. But what they fail to understand is that they have acquired pseudo-knowledge. It has the appearance of real knowledge; it uses lots of big words, and it often includes a list of scientific citations. There’s just one teensy problem; it’s not true.

The appearance of real knowledge is what can trip a lot of us up.  It’s what made me consider the alternate vaccine schedule at one point.  Since none of us on this blog are scientists or doctors, it is obviously somewhat ironic to post this next quote from Amy’s article here, but here goes:

The truth about health education is both simple and stark. You cannot be educated about any aspect of health without reading and understanding scientific textbooks and the scientific literature. Period!

Don’t waste your time perusing the internet. Unless you are willing to confirm what you read on the internet by reading the scientific literature, you can’t be sure you’ve learned anything.

So, yeah, it’s sort of funny that Dr. Amy is telling people to stop wasting time reading health advice on the internet…but she’s giving this advice on the internet.

Don’t bother to tell the rest of us that you are “educated” because you’ve demonstrated nothing more than your gullibility. You haven’t acquired knowledge, you’ve acquired pseudo-knowledge, and it marks you as a fool.

While I love this statement, I also don’t quite think that believing these kinds of things marks you as a “fool.”  Gullible, maybe, but it’s easy to be fooled.  It is embarrassing to hear anti-vaccine folks talk and repeat the same misguided statements.  Sadly, I hear this kind of talk too often where I live, and now our pertussis epidemic may be the outcome of this ignorance, which continues to be passed on through the grapevine and on the internet and in the parks in my neighborhood.

But I do remember being fooled and scared by this kind of talk.  The vaccination rates are most down in LA among people just like me–the well educated and slightly suspicious of authority.  We’re the target audience for the anti-vaxers.  The pseudo-knowledge sounds pretty impressive to us, and that is the problem.

21 Responses to Dang Amy, Tell Me How You Really Feel!

  1. Adam says:

    Irony is usually lost on the zealous. That she could say it without any self-consciousness means she’s left rationality behind in her zeal. Which is often the main reason I react against the anti-vaxxers as well. After two weeks of a child sick with chicken pox I wish I had vaccinated her at the time. Now I’m nurse-maiding her sister and brother too. Their younger brother fortunately had the varicella vaccine, so I don’t have the prospect of trying to keep a 2 year old from scratching. Having had the blasted things as an adult I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.

  2. Thanks for the mention!

    “The truth about health education is both simple and stark. You cannot be educated about any aspect of health without reading and understanding scientific textbooks and the scientific literature. Period!

    Don’t waste your time perusing the internet. Unless you are willing to confirm what you read on the internet by reading the scientific literature, you can’t be sure you’ve learned anything.”

    It’s not an accident that I wrote it that way. You can’t be “educated” by simply reading my website, either. I don’t teach a full course in immunology; I don’t cover much virology; and I only review basic principles of statistics occasionally.

    I think the majority of my readers recognize that. I have never seen anyone claim to be “educated” because they read The Skeptical OB. The majority of my readers choose to follow my blog precisely because they recognize that they lack the requisite education and training to independently evaluate the issues of vaccine safety and efficacy. Therefore, they have chosen to seek explanations from someone who does have education and training.

    This speaks to one of the critical differences between pseudoscience and real science. It is axiomatic in pseudoscience that anyone can be “educated” by simply reading a few websites or books written by other lay people. Real science is not nearly so indulgent. There is only one way to acquire expertise and that is by extensive study of the scientific literature. There are no short cuts.

    • B says:

      Amy Tuteur there ARE people who feel “educated” about the danger of homebirth and pseudoscience by reading your site. In fact, isn’t that your main purpose for creating your site, to educate people on the dangers of homebirth and pseudoscience? You have critiqued studies and posted it for lay people to read as evidence that they are being mislead by the researchers and MDs who published those articles, as well as those people supporting homebirth and various other medical or health practices.

      As you say – lay people “lack the requisite education and training to independently evaluate” the medical and health issues. So essentially your message is that people should listen to their doctors because they know best, as there is no way to be educated enough unless you study and graduate from med school.

      Well, we can read Dr. Sears or Dr. Amy – both are MD’s with reputable education and training… but what is the result? Who is educating us better?

      It is very easy for everyone to be gullible fools. Perhaps we should also be skeptical of the Skeptical OB. :)

  3. Adam says:

    How then do people make informed decisions rationally without becoming experts? If we’re listening to self-identified “experts” how can we tell one voice from another when both claim “expertise”? Many anti-vaxxers are disaffected mainstream doctors and health professionals, ostensibly fighting against “Big Pharma” and similar bogeys. The anti-authoritarian streak in the target audience is why such groups succeed in spreading their “poisonous memes”. Identifying quacks and the self-deluded is very hard for a lay-person if the standard required to be any kind of ‘reliable’ information source is recognized expertise.

  4. Adam says:

    I should add…

    “Recognized by who? Especially since barely disguised self-interest is behind so much quasi-propaganda put out by Big Pharma and similar power-groups.”

    …which leaves me wondering just how I acquired the opinion that anti-vaxxers are generally dangerously deluded idiots or quacks. Was it a rational process at all???

  5. “If we’re listening to self-identified “experts” how can we tell one voice from another when both claim “expertise”?”

    Again, that’s the difference between science and pseudoscience. In real science, you can’t “self identify” as an expert. You must have the requisite education, training and experience. If laypeople want to determine expertise, they have to look at credentials.

    “Especially since barely disguised self-interest is behind so much quasi-propaganda put out by Big Pharma and similar power-groups.”

    I’m not sure why that idea has traction, because even if it were true, it would make doctors and pharmaceutical companies no worse that advocates of pseudoscience. I can’t think of a single professional vaccine rejectionist who does not make money from their recommendations. They have websites; they sell books; they sell products. It’s ALWAYS about the money for those people.

    Are there any professional or celebrity vaccine rejectionists who aren’t hawking a book, or profiting from a website, or pushing bogus “remedies”?

    • Adam says:

      Hi Amy
      Cool pseudonym BTW.
      My point was that “follow the money” applies to both sides and isn’t going to influence someone’s decision for rational reasons. We react emotionally to the idea of whistle-blowers challenging big vested interests. That reaction, something the quacks reply on, makes us attentionally blind to the dollars that the quack is asking us to part company with. Sleight-of-hand.

  6. Science-based decision-making is best when we’re looking to provide care for our children, and ourselves. Science indicates vaccination, hand cleaning and practicing standard precautions in daily living are the best ways to prevent infections.

  7. littlez2008 says:

    Thanks, this is a great discussion, and I’m actually mentally working on a post about how “lay people” tell good information from bad information. So far we’ve hit two key points. Does the “expert” have the right credentials, and is he or she standing to make a profit from alternative treatments?

    This is what trips me up about Bob Sears, and I think many of my friends unfortunately fell for his schtick. When you hear him speak, he sounds reasonable enough, and he does have a medical degree, so it seems he’s got a legit credential. But he is not an epidemiologist, and he’s selling a book about the alternate vaccine schedule he pushes. So he’s not really an expert in the field he’s writing about, and he’s making a profit off his advice.

    He always seems like such a nice guy, though, and so caring about parents. It is really easy to believe he has your best interests at heart! We followed the schedule, but I know so many very smart parents who did not.

  8. Poogles says:

    I definitely relate to the problem of laypeople being able to differentiate between real experts and quacks. For me, I switched form anti-vax to pro-vax as I learned more about logic (and logical fallacies) and critical thinking. The more I learned there, the easier it was to see how the anti-vax arguments just didn’t hold up. Now, it is easier (but sometimes still pretty difficult) for me to pick up on “woo” and pseudoscience, since I can recognize some of their common logical fallacies and crazy claims.
    Personally, I feel that teaching critical thinking and logic in middle school/high school is desperately needed. Some nicer schools do, but it’s not nearly common enough.

  9. Dea says:

    Poogles – I 100% agree with you. One of the things that has drawn me to Skepticism is that I went from very religious to non-religious after having recognized my reliance on logical fallacies and learning more about logic and critical thinking. Knowing I can be “fooled” by reasonable sounding arguments, flawed “evidence” etc., makes me a little more prepared to encounter extraordinary claims. anytime I hear something out of the blue, I always ask for evidence and then see what evidence is on the other side and how both sides arrived at their evidence. I’m no scientist, but I’ve learned to evaluate credentials a little better and I think that is progress. We definitely need to start teaching critical thinking and logic in schools – and with more emphasis on the scientific method in a way that excites kids about science.

  10. Chris says:

    There is a lovely little book, Lies, Damned Lies and Science, that provides some hints on how to sort through the information, basically what was said above.

  11. Blue Heron says:

    A problem arises when two legitimate experts differ. THEN what’s a layperson to do? One doctor tells me XYZ; another tells me ABC. Both have similar credentials. Both come highly recommended. Which way to go?

    Is it EVER acceptable to question what your doctor is telling you? Or should we just sit down, shut up, and do what we’re told? ‘Cuz after all, we’re not the experts. Dr. Amy, you seem liable to snap at a patient who asks you a question. Unless that patient has been to medical school, that is. . .

  12. Chris says:

    Blue Heron:

    Is it EVER acceptable to question what your doctor is telling you?

    Why not? It is precisely the reason I am skipping a mammogram this year. My doctor agreed that my risk level did not require it every year, and every other year or so is appropriate.

    Unfortunately reality is complicated, and you will get two doctors telling you two different things. Like should I have put my kid back on anti-convulsants after his last seizure? There were lots of factors to be weighed between the fact that seizures are generally bad, but the drugs are not harmless. In the end it was decided since the seizures were from the illness that the drugs would not be given.

    What you need to do is make sure the risks and the benefits are clearly and honestly given. This is something I often find missing on the Internets.

    • Adam says:

      Nice explication Chris. Does make me very suspicious when someone immediately pitches into demonizing the alternative without presenting data from both sides. Creationists, for example, are serial offenders with that approach. Or then there’s the editor of the alternative parenting magazine we used to subscribe to. Never an even handed presentation of vaccination – always repackaged truisms from anti-vaxxers. Used to make me want to shout replies down a telephone, but I refrained.

    • B says:

      But Chris, the discussion of the risks and benefits are not always clearly and honestly given by doctors in consultations either. So many doctors are time crunched and tired of having the same discussions and answering the same questions from their patients day after day. At least this is the feedback you can get from patients.

      • Chris says:

        They are better then the internet. Who do you think I should have consulted after my son’s last set of seizures?

        By the way, from my experience the specialists are not usually time crunched. I have never been rushed at either of my son’s neurologists nor cardiologists. Of course, these are where the risks and benefits are bit more fuzzy, compared to whether or not to get antibiotics for an ear infection.

  13. Charles says:

    Are there fields that have no experts, or that have pretend experts? If there is a lot of disagreement among experts on a topic, should we take any individual expert’s opinion less seriously? How much consensus is required before a non-expert should say, “OK, looks like this question really is settled”?

    Massimo and Julia did a podcast on this very question.

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