I’m sure everyone has run into the type – a science denier who thinks their two hours at Google University makes them as knowledgeable as a real physician or scientist. This arrogance manifests itself in ridiculous discussions with anti-vaccine activists who claim to have “done the research,” and who believe their pseudoscientific research is more valuable than real scientific research.
This Google University education utilized by vaccine deniers, really all science deniers, can be frustrating. I frequent a couple of large Facebook groups that try to help on-the-fence anti-vaxxers understand what constitutes evidence and what doesn’t concerning vaccines. Recently, one of the anti-vaccine true believers kept saying she knew more than a nurse with a public health master’s degree. The arrogant anti-vaxxer kept claiming that she “did her research.”
Because of this absurd overvaluing of their Google University research, I want to review a handful of points that every science denier seems to use that make us laugh. All but one applies to any type of science denial, but we’re sticking with vaccines. Because we can.
Google University and the Dunning-Kruger effect
I know that most anti-vaxxers have no clue about the Dunning-Kruger effect. They just don’t understand what it means to arrogantly overrate the value of their two hours of Google University as opposed to the thousands of hours that are the foundation of real scientific research.
But let’s start with the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The Dunning-Kruger effect was first described by Cornell University social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. They stated that the effect was a cognitive bias of illusory superiority resulting from an internal illusion in people of low ability to recognize their actual lack of ability. Without this self-awareness, these low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual level of competence or incompetence. To quote Dunning and Kruger, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self.”
The Dunning-Kruger effect is often visualized by this graphic (or many like it):
The effect can be summarized by the well-known phrase, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” That is, a small amount of expertise or knowledge can mislead a person into thinking that they’re an expert because it is often easy to get a small amount of knowledge. They think that it’s all it takes.
They also think that those that have actual superior knowledge and experience are only marginally different than themselves. They underrate or even dismiss, the amount of work and effort it takes to be an expert in a field of biomedical science.
I wrote an article about just how much education and experience underlies most vaccine researchers. I based it on Malcolm Gladwell’s oft-repeated “10,000-hour” claim that to become an expert in a field, it takes around 10,000 hours of repetitive learning to become an expert.
Someone with a bachelor’s in art history, business, or computer science can conceivably be described as “well educated.” However, that does not make them experts in vaccines, since those real researchers often specialize, with many times more than 10,000 hours, in related fields of science like immunology, public health, epidemiology, biochemistry, virology, microbiology, and too many others to list.
So, these individuals will turn to Google University, and after a few hours, claim to understand everything about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
I find it ironic that real scientists, those who have extensive undergraduate and graduate educations in highly specialized fields of biomedicine, tend to stay in their wheelhouse. You don’t see a vaccine scientist, who may have years of scientific study along with decades of scientific experience, pontificate about neuroscience. They may understand the science, but they defer to the experts unless there are obvious scientific conflicts.
So why does someone who has zero formal education and experience in any field related to vaccines want us to believe that they know more about vaccine safety and effectiveness? They can’t, but the Dunning-Kruger is strong in them which lets them think that their Google University degree is equivalent to a Ph.D. from Stanford.
Bias and more bias
Google University is a bad method for science education because of lots of reasons. But the most important reason is that it is simply biased.
When some anti-vaccine terrorist screams “do your research,” what they mean is that they have a pre-ordained conclusion, and they want you to dig up every bit of data that supports that conclusion. As I used to tell the pre-med students in my biology class that I taught in a major university, “that ain’t science kid.”
One of the fundamental hallmarks of real science (and scientific skepticism) is examining all of the evidence, giving weight to both quality and quantity, before concluding. Anti-vaxxers (and all other pseudoscientists) want to support their beloved conclusions, so they employ their form of “research” from Google University to try to convince everyone that vaccines are unsafe or worthless.
- Confirmation bias. Simply put, anti-vaxxers employ their personal bias against vaccines to choose “research” that support that bias.
- Cherry picking. In a sense, this is just the action that is utilized for the confirmation bias. They pick the articles, books, or comments that confirm the bias. Once again, they don’t look at all of the evidence, just the evidence that supports their claims.
- Argument from authority. This is just another form of confirmation bias, with a special twist. Anti-vaxxers will give more credence and weight to individuals with credentials that make them appear to be experts. However, the so-called expertise of these false authorities is betrayed by evidence. So someone like Tetyana Obukhanych, who has a Ph.D. in immunology, expresses pseudoscientific nonsense about vaccines with no peer-reviewed articles that support her junk science, there is little to no value in her statements. Moreover, her opinions are outweighed by the thousands of immunologists whose comments about vaccines are backed by solid scientific evidence. Actually, credentials don’t matter – only evidence does.
- The Big Pharma shill conspiracy gambit. Basically, the anti-vaxxers will invent some Big Pharma payment system (Shill Bucks™) to reject any scientific evidence that does not support the anti-vaccine view of the universe.
There are other biases and logical fallacies that are critical to the anti-vaccine crowd in doing “research” on Google University. But those are the top four in what defines pseudoscience-pushing anti-vaccine “research.”
And although it’s not a bias, it marks a big difference in real scientific research versus Google University research. Real scientists read the whole paper – they examine the material and methods, the statistical analysis, the author’s qualifications, and the conclusion. The pseudoscience researchers look at one or two sentences in the abstract, proclaiming from the mountaintops that they understand the science.
They usually don’t.
The scientific consensus on vaccines
Using their Dunning-Kruger and other biases, the anti-vaccine religion conveniently ignores the solid scientific consensus on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
According to one of the most prestigious scientific academies in the world, the National Academy of Sciences:
Vaccines offer the promise of protection against a variety of infectious diseases. Despite much media attention and strong opinions from many quarters, vaccines remain one of the greatest tools in the public health arsenal. Certainly, some vaccines result in adverse effects that must be acknowledged. But the latest evidence shows that few adverse effects are caused by the vaccines reviewed in this report.
So what is a scientific consensus? It is the collective opinion and judgment of scientific experts in a particular field. It is one of the most important methods to separate real scientific ideas and conclusions from pseudoscience, cargo cult science, and other beliefs.
Many science deniers think this consensus occurs in a smoke-filled room hidden in the basement of the Big Pharma Shill Bucks™ bank hidden in a secret base in the Arctic tundra where Sasquatch and reptilians are hiding. It’s nothing like that, although Sasquatch may help out.
Over the past 12 months, there have been over 13,600 articles published about COVID-19 vaccines. Have I read them all? Has any anti-vaxxer read them all? Has anyone read them all?
Of course, the answer to the first two questions is a resounding no. I don’t have the time to read them all, so I focus on certain areas of the research so that I’m not overwhelmed. On the other hand, you can be sure that there isn’t a single anti-vaxxer who’s read them all since we know it’s beyond their skill set.
But the answer to the third question is yes. For example, an expert committee, such as the National Academy of Medicine or the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) will meet to discuss vaccines and the members will, as a group, have read most, if not all, of those 13,600 articles as a group. And the members of ACIP have real scientific backgrounds that are critical to understanding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. They do real research!
As Dr. Paul Offit wrote in his recent book, Bad Advice,
Sometimes people tell me that after doing their research, they’ve decided not to get the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine. What they mean by research is that they’ve read other people’s opinions about the vaccine on the internet.
That’s not research.
If someone reallyt wants to research the varicella vaccine, they should read the seven hundred papers that have been published on the subject. To do this, they would need to have a working knowledge of virology, immunology, microbiology, statistics, epidemiology, pathogenesis, molecular biology and clinical medicine. Most people don’t have this expertise. In fact, most doctors don’t have it.
Instead, doctors turn to advisory bodies, like those that report to the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Collectively, these advisory groups do have that expertise. And collectively, they’ve read those papers.
With this knowledge in . hand, these advisory groups make recommendations about who should get the vaccine, who shouldn’t get the vaccine, how many dose should be given, and what side effects to watch out for.
We know that the vaccines on the CDC schedule (and similar ones across the world) are very safe and very effective. Not because I have an opinion that says so. Not because a pediatrician says so. It’s because real experts who have “done their research” have determined, based on real scientific evidence, that the vaccines are very safe and very effective.
I don’t understand the arrogance of the anti-vaccine religion who seem to claim that they know more than the scientific experts. They either think there’s some conspiracy. Or they employ ad hominem personal attacks against great scientists like Dr. Offit. Or they belittle experts. It makes no sense.
Because I know something that the anti-vaccine nutjobs don’t…
Science research is hard
People seem to think scientific research is performed by some guy sitting alone in a lab, looking over a bunch of test tubes or into a microscope. He or she has bad hair, thick glasses, and no social skills. I read somewhere that our image of scientists is based on Albert Einstein.
But that’s not how biomedical research is done.
First of all, as I’ve written before, many scientists have had over 2500-3000 hours of classwork just in science relevant to their biomedical research. And these aren’t easy courses – immunology, biochemistry, statistics, physiology, cell biology, and so many others form the foundation of scientific research.
I don’t care how smart some anti-vax mom claims she is just because she has a college degree. Just to understand the immune system and how it reacts to antigens takes years. Many times I read posts from anti-vaxxers that get basic infant immunology so wrong that it’s clear that they are amateurs in science.
Second, scientific research is not a lonely, one-person pursuit. A research leader has a team that helps get the research done. There are post-docs and graduate students who are pursuing interrelated lines of research. There are lab techs who do much of the hands-on work. There are data entry experts who make sure what was gathered can be analyzed There are computer programmers who help construct complex models. Some statisticians analyze the data.
When I did my graduate work in cell biology, my lab was run by a senior professor and included five doctoral students, one post-doctoral fellow, four Master’s students, five lab techs, two administrative assistants, and the assistance of the school’s statistics and computer science departments. Although some of us had our research directions, we frequently had to assist in developing new techniques (I will never want to fractionate proteins again in my life) or performing experiments.
Third, education and training never cease for most scientists. I find it hysterical and troubling when an anti-vaxxer says that a physician never learns about vaccines. Nothing could be further from the truth. A pediatrician, usually the point person for vaccines, has at least eight years of formal science education, along with three or more years of clinical experience with vaccines.
Not only do they read about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines during high-level courses, but they also observe and examine patients who have and have not received vaccines. They see children who have been vaccinated, and they can separate fact from fiction. They also see children who have not been vaccinated and succumb to deadly diseases.
Vaccine scientists are constantly reading newly published studies. They attend several meetings a year where research data and conclusions are freely shared. They discuss current research with colleagues.
Fourth, scientific research is a lifelong pursuit. It is not an hour or two on Google University. As arrogant as the anti-vaxxers want to be, it is nearly impossible to become an expert in science in just a day or two.
Does this all mean that science should be unapproachable? No, but it is not easy. The anti-vaxxers dismiss the expertise and knowledge because that expertise and knowledge contradict their beliefs.
Does it mean that science shouldn’t be criticized? No, but it should be criticized on the science itself, not because of beliefs, logical fallacies, and political expediency. It must be challenged with scientific evidence, which is what science does well. Science is self-critical, despite the beliefs of the science deniers.
The Google University summary
The safety and effectiveness of vaccines are settled science. And no that doesn’t mean that scientists will give up looking at how to make better and better vaccines. It means that there is little published evidence that supports the inane beliefs of anti-vaxxers about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
Anti-vaxxers employ their Dunning-Kruger effect, their biases, their ignorance of the scientific consensus, and their dismissal of real scientific expertise to yell and scream about vaccines. They want us to believe their Google University “research” is equivalent to PhDs and MDs who have given their life to vaccine research.
But this isn’t some philosophical disagreement. They are using this pathetic and useless Google University “research” to put children in harm’s way. That is the ultimate in arrogance.
Yeah, science research is damn hard. It takes a lifetime of learning and repetition. Scientists do this not for money, glory, or a Nobel Prize – they do it out of a love for real scientific research and to improve the human condition.
It’s disturbing and sad that amateur pseudoscientists think they know more than the vast majority of scientists. But we see this same anti-science arrogance in evolution, climate change, GMOs, and other areas of science. It’s troubling.