Having an open mind.

                                                     Source: thehealthyhomeeconomist.com via Simone on Pinterest


I was having a discussion with someone on Facebook today about vaccination.  He kept making claims, and I kept asking for links or evidence or anything I could actually discuss.  None were forthcoming.  He talked about experts that “report serious concerns with the vaccination regime”.  He didn’t name any experts.  He didn’t back up his assertions at all.  Finally he said…

Even if I had the time to locate the research, or go through my old files to supply you with relevant material. Would it really make any difference to your belief system?
So lets just call it a stalemate here.

I’m a bit confused about what he means about my belief system.  I think he’s trying to say that I’ve got a closed mind, that I’m unable to see beyond the merely rational, into something deeper, hidden, available only to those with eyes to see.

I believe we have an environment where it takes great courage for professionals and researchers, who have concerns about vaccination, to speak out publicly. When, despite high levels of academic qualifications, they are labelled “lunatics” by those who disagree.

So by quoting scientists and experts who support vaccination I am only parroting the line that the government and pharmaceutical industry are willing to accept.  On the other hand he’s listening to the mavericks that have the courage to speak the truth in spite of the risk.  He seems to be saying that he has an open mind and there’s no point in talking with someone who has a closed mind because it would be a waste of time.

So I wonder.  Is my mind closed? I trust science and reason.  I trust them because they have runs on the board; they haven’t failed me yet.  I don’t hold them as a belief system.  I’m not even sure that I have a belief system, though I suspect there must be one rattling around somewhere down there.  And I think that I’m open to changing my position on things if the evidence is strong.

In the 1990s I was a climate skeptic.  That was before the term had been created, but I was clearly one of them.  I thought that climate change was just another hypothesis that has a bit of traction but was likely to not pan out.  I got annoyed at New Scientist magazine for taking a pro-Global Warming position, and kept looking on the internet (such as it was back then) for skeptical arguments.  I don’t know if that was a belief system or merely my opinion, but that’s what I thought, and I was pretty solidly against the idea of Global Warming.

What changed was hearing from people who I respected.  They were not advocates for one side or the other, just credible people who knew how to read the science.  They didn’t change my mind, but they got me paying attention to information from both sides of the debate (and it was more of a debate back then, less of a political ideology). When I read information from the science side the arguments tended to be well made and measured.  While there were irrational “pro” arguments, they were in the minority.  On the “skeptic” side I started to notice that more and more of the arguments were rabid, argumentative and based on various conspiracy theories.  It took me a while, but I changed my point of view.

I like to think that I’m open minded enough to do that.  If someone provided me with solid evidence that vaccination was dangerous, ineffective or a hoax I’d be willing to change my position.  I doubt that I’ll be tested on that assumption.  The evidence on vaccination is like the evidence on gravity, it’s pretty bloody strong.  But still, I think I’m open minded enough to be swayed by evidence.

My opponent in the argument may not be so open minded.  While I can’t know if he could be persuaded to change his mind, it occurs to me that there may be no avenue open for him to do so.  If all evidence is seen to be tainted by Big Pharma, and all experts are doing the bidding of Big Pharma, then expert opinion and evidence will never be a sufficient reason to change his view.  What other avenues exist? Is his mind so open that he’s stuck with an unalterable position?  I don’t know.  But it looks that way from this side.

Of course, from his side it looks like my position is just as immutable.  And, with respect to vaccination, he may be right.  Vaccination has saved many millions of lives.  I’m happy to be stuck with my position.

What I finally said to him on Facebook was this:

If you had evidence that held up, yes it would make a difference. If you don’t, then it won’t. As Mia Freedman (from the family website Mamamia) said in The Good Weekend, “There aren’t two sides to this story. On one hand there’s science. There is no other hand”. That fact people with “doubts” exist is irrelevant. They either have the science or they don’t. Anti-vaccine propaganda goes back as far as vaccines. There has never been good science to back it up.

If you don’t trust science, fine. If you think that one person who expresses “doubts” is the equivalent of thousands who do the research and collect the evidence, that’s fine too. If you think that all knowledge is suspect if corporate interests exist, that’s fine too.

Either you want to back up what you say, or not. But if you post anti-vaccine propaganda, you’ll almost definitely hear from me.

And he ended the conversation with:

I’ll look forward to it then 🙂

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  1. A finely honed argument. I’m a “on the one hand there’s science; there is no other hand” kinda gal, and I appreciated the logic.

  2. Nice bloggin’ dear. Great layout and tone. Yay for you (and your inspiring household of writers and communicators).
    Hey -am I old school thinking it should read ‘an open mind’? Got any grumpy grammar police advise on that one?

  3. Go Daniel,

    As someone who has had doubts about the possibility that, in some susceptible young people there may have been the tendency to fall ill following some types of vaccination, ( f brain damage I think the popular wisdom went) I could never find any evidence that this was true and have reverted to “the science”.

    Regardless of all that, an acceptable argument must be evidence based or it becomes nothing but superstition.
    Thinking a little further, what about empiricle evidence? “Guided by practical experience and not theory”? Especially in medicine, (it says in the American Heritage Dictionary.

    • Thanks Pip.
      Vaccines are never 100% safe. Nothing you can inject, eat or breath is 100% safe. What the science says is that the risk verses benefit equation works out. That means that the risk to your children is much, much higher from the disease than it is from the vaccine. The anti-vaccine cranks keep trying to make the risk look much bigger than it really is, and that’s a problem because parents want whatever is best for their kids. Parents that are convinced that the danger is great will not vaccinate their kids. If enough of them don’t get vaccinated, the diseases come back. Whooping cough is back. There’s been a dead baby in NSW, and one in Oregon, in areas of low vaccination. Measles is back in England and parts of Europe and the US. It’s all tragic and unnecessary.