Inoculation vacation

I find this discussion of a recent book on vaccination (at Gawker, of all places) fascinating.  I mean the comment string actually, where the author is given a chance to answer direct questions from the readers.

To my mind, the author is far too light on the anti-vax crowd (and the readers let her know that).  She’s uncomfortable with them being labeled as stupid, as the anti-vax crowd speaks from a multitude of different perspectives.  A longish quote:

Well, first of all, what we’re calling the anti-vax position is actually a very diverse set of ideologies – thinking of it as one homogenous position is already robbing it of some of its complexity. One of the things that I’ve observed in my own thinking and in the thinking of other people who are vaccine hesitant is a tendency toward wide and sometimes loose association. For instance, we know a lot about the troubled history of paternalism in medicine and the ways in which the medical system has oppressed women – we associate the powerlessness we feel around vaccination with the powerlessness that has been forced on us historically. Or, we observe real and troubling problems in our current medical system, or in our system of government, or in our capitalist system, and we feel concern that those problems may bleed over into vaccination – may corrupt or pollute our vaccines. I think these concerns are legitimate – we have real, pressing problems with our medical system and with our government and with our economy. Do I think the best way to address those problems is to refuse vaccination? No, but I do think we (meaning those of us who care about the public health implications of vaccine refusal) need to be aware that significant social critiques are being made in the form of vaccine refusal. And if we want to enact change, rather than just self-righteously rant, we may even have to address the root problems of medical care, governance, and finance that are troubling some of the people who are refusing vaccination.

I appreciate the pragmatic impulse of the author (let’s worry about the public health issue, not the poor argument and misinformation). I think someone might write something significant about that notion, in fact.  Nonetheless, this strikes me as a bit of an iron man: there’s obviously an implicit social critique (as there is whenever anyone does anything against prevailing norms), but that social critique might be (and is in this case) lame, ill-informed, held by very few people, and dangerous.  It’s also probably not the point.  The point is the science.  And the objectors have, as the author believes, gotten that completely wrong.

The argument from ceded authority

Arguments from authority are typically third-person arguments: X says that p, so p is probably true.  Saying, I say that p, I have qualifications q, so listen up, is less common.  When you make an argument as an authority, you still cite reasons, they’re just reasons lay people don’t get.

Now comes Charles Krauthammer, quondam psychiatrist, who offers another twist on the argument from authority: the argument from ceded authority.  It works like this: I have qualifications q, but I’m not going to invoke them because they would prohibit me from saying p, so I cede this authority, and assert that p.  Here it is via TPM:

“So I decided when I left psychiatry never to use my authority. But let me just say as a layman, without invoking any expertise, Obama is clearly a narcissist in the non-scientific use of the word,” Krauthammer said during an interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.” “He is so self-involved, you see it from his rise.”

I’m pretty sure that expertise is not the kind of thing you can just put aside, as you would if you were a pro tennis player playing an amateur.  That expertise, once earned, pretty much stays.  So Krauthammer has offered an interesting variation on the age-old “I’m not a doctor. . . ” it’s “I’m a doctor, but I don’t play one on TV.”