Pauline Hanson has become the latest politician to flirt with the fringe view of immunisation denial. Of course, like all thoroughly modern anti-vaxxers, she claims to be about choice and empowerment rather than denial of the overwhelming scientific consensus.
Of all the weasel words immunisation deniers use, I get most infuriated by the “do your own research” trope.
You don’t need to. Unless you’re a senior research scientist with your own lab, a posse of postdocs and serious wad of cash, we don’t need your help.
What Senator Hanson appears to mean is that she wants average people who find misinformation on the internet to be allowed to disagree with decades of rigorous, serious scientific effort. Unlike so many of my medical colleagues, I make an effort to keep up with goings-on in the anti-vax movement so I am grimly aware of the depths of hubris and folly that inform the “research” you so easily find when you innocently Google for vaccine information. The average person with high-school science knowledge and healthy faith in human decency has no chance.
Someone who has limited time and attention would not possibly bother to wade through the byzantine details of how Andrew Wakefield’s fraud was uncovered and the scurrilous ongoing attempts to smear Brian Deer, the investigative journalist who brought it to light.
Only a dogged student of human nature would have the stomach to watch videos featuring the pseudoscientific ramblings of the supposed intellectual leaders of this wretched movement. Yet many of us have done this for you. Trust me, there is no wisdom or learning in these cranks.
Only the real enthusiasts would have watched with bemusement last month as the Chiropractors’ Association of Australia (CAA) had a public spat on their own Facebook page with the AV-sN, Australia’s leading anti-vax organisation. CAA finally got around to demanding the removal of a link from AV-sN website endorsing their chiropractic philosophy of opposing immunisation. Their public statement read in part:
It has come to our attention that the Australian Vaccination-sceptics Network contains a link to the CAA National website. We have requested that they remove this link to our website as a matter of urgency.
The Chiropractors’ Association of Australia (CAA) does not support the views promoted by the Australian Vaccination-sceptics Network.
The former president of the anti-vaxxers then further embarrassed CAA by turning up in the comment section and lamenting:
More and more chiropractors are speaking out against their governing body trying to tell them that they must ignore basic chiropractic philosophy of the power that made the body heals the body in order to gain acceptance from mainstream medicine. When will the CAA understand that mainstream medicine’s only concern is to maintain their own authoritarian monopoly and destroy any and all competitors?
I’ve previously documented how CAA has been providing anti-vax speakers at official learning activities approved for professional development by their regulator, but you won’t find this information on the front page of your Google search. As recently as 2015, the CAA National Conference featured several speakers with links to the antivax movement. But again, the background briefing needed to appreciate the importance of this is not available to any but the most hardcore anti-vax-watchers.
I could go on and on in this vein, but I’ll spare you. Suffice to say that everywhere you get suspicion and hostility about immunisation you also get shoddy thinking and misrepresentation of plain facts. You get routine denial of reality and genuinely unhinged discourse. Science becomes The Enemy. Ideology trumps evidence.
There is no worthwhile political debate to be had here. Giving such deformed pseudoscience any media oxygen at all is reckless. It is unworthy of a serious aspirant to political power. By parroting the coded messages of the anti-vax movement, and encouraging hesitant parents to “do their own research” Senator Hanson is enabling an unspeakable industry to thrive. Make no mistake, there are hucksters both big and small raking in money by manufacturing hostility towards one of the greatest gifts our benighted species has managed to give itself.
All these cretins want is the chance to get unwary, perhaps vulnerable parents in front of their finely tuned propaganda.
What Senator Hanson has just done is give them a flood of fresh eyeballs to sell to.
Along with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Pauline Hanson has long stood as a grim reminder that the second half of the 1990s was much worse than the first half. And now, 18 years later, Hanson finds herself back in Canberra.
Hanson’s racist agenda will be a stain on the Senate just as surely as the views she represents are a stain on Australia itself. For that reason alone, her return is a cause for dismay. But it is not the only cause.
Both Hanson herself and her wider party have a vocal sideline in science denialism: the view that expert consensus on various topics is corrupted and unreliable.
At the time of writing, it’s quite possible Malcolm Roberts, who has the number two slot on the One Nation Senate ticket in Queensland, will be joining Hanson in Canberra. Roberts is a project leader of the Galileo Movement, a lobby group who deny anthropogenic climate change and insist the global scientific community and governments are corruptly hiding the truth from their publics.
Conspiracism in public life
This might seem small beer next to the potentially disastrous effects a Hansonite revival might have on Australia’s pluralist and multicultural society.
But remember: Hanson had an outsized impact on Australian politics in the 90s precisely because she gave voice to views that resonated with much of the electorate and, unlike other politicians, wasn’t quite canny enough to reach for the dog whistle. In openly using phrases like “swamped with Asians,” Hanson shifted the Overton Window until the political establishment found the only way her views could be contained was by absorbing them.
Enter Roberts, a man who honestly believes a “tight-knit cabal” made up of “some of the major banking families in the world” are advancing corrupted climate science with the aim of global domination. Such language has some very dark associations in the history of conspiracy theory. Hence Andrew Bolt disassociated himself from the Galileo Movement for peddling a view that “smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed.”
One might think that if even an arch-denialist like Bolt can’t abide views like Roberts’, One Nation’s climate conspiracism will end up either repudiated or ignored. But then, nobody in 1996 thought “swamped with Asians” rhetoric would have such an impact on the Australian polity either.
Besides, this has been a good season globally for political expertise bashing. Perhaps the new One Nation senators will find that, in another echo of the Howard years, the times will suit them.
In the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Tory MP and leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove declared “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Gove is now in the running to become the Prime Minister who will preside over the UK’s divorce from the EU – and quite possibly, the breakup of the United Kingdom itself.
And of course, denialism won’t be a novelty in Canberra either. Denis Jensen won’t be there when Senator Hanson arrives, but his colleague George Christiansen will be. David Leyonhjelm may no longer grace the Senate crossbenches, but thanks to him we’ll still be paying for a Commissioner to investigate Wind Turbine Syndrome complaints despite the lack of evidence for any such condition. And lest this be dismissed as a mere lefty rant, we should also note the Greens’ stance on genetically modified organisms.
All of this might be ascribed to “post-truth politics,” the condition in which political discourse is no longer constrained by norms of truth-telling. But simply insisting people tell the truth – hardly an outrageous demand – won’t help with this specific problem. To invoke the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s ingenious distinction, post-truth politics is not fundamentally about lies, but bullshit. The liar knows the truth, and cares about it enough to conceal it. The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care (and may not know) if what they say is true; they just care that you believe it. Trump, it seems fair to say, is a bullshitter. Much of the Gove-Johnson-Farage Brexit campaign was certainly built on bullshit.
But science denialists are not, or at least not necessarily, liars or bullshitters. Their beliefs are sincere. And they are shared by a great many people, who by definition won’t be persuaded by simple appeals to expert opinion because the authority of expert opinion is precisely what they deny. How should we respond to this?
Naïve Reason won’t save us
One disastrous answer would be to retreat into a naïve conception of capital-r Reason as some sort of panacea. Surprisingly smart people end up plumping for such a view. Consider this bit of utopianism from Neil deGrasse Tyson:
Even if Tyson’s being tongue-in-cheek here, this is emblematic of a fairly widespread view that if we just consult The Facts, and then simply apply the infallible techniques of Reason to these Facts, it becomes blindingly obvious precisely What Is To Be Done. This view is only slightly less naïve, and barely less self-congratulatory, than those it opposes.
You sometimes come across people who want to insist that battles over science denialism represent a conflict between “reality” and “ideology.” But there’s no direct access to “reality” – all knowledge is mediated through our existing concepts, language, and so on – and so, arguably, no non-ideological access to it either. Human knowledge doesn’t drop from the sky fully-formed and transparently validated by some infallible faculty of Reason. It’s always filtered through language, culture, politics, history, and the foibles of psychology. Producing knowledge is something humans do – and that means power relations are involved.
Distributed knowledge and trust
While anti-intellectualism and suspicion of expertise is nothing new, the problem is amplified by the very advances that make modern life what it is. Put crudely, we now know so much that nobody can know it all for themselves, and so we have to rely more and more on other people to know things for us.
Under such conditions of distributed knowledge, trust becomes ever more important. You can’t be an expert in everything, and so you have to take more and more on trust. Is human activity warming the climate? Does the MMR vaccine cause autism? Would Brexit tank the UK’s economy? These are not questions you or I can answer, assuming you or I aren’t researchers working in the relevant fields. So we have to defer to the relevant communities of experts – and that’s a problem if you’re not good with trust or deference.
The physicist Brian Cox recently said of Gove’s expertise remark that it represents the way “back to the cave.” If that’s a fate we want to avoid, we’re stuck with distributed knowledge, and the reliance on others it involves.
That being so, we need to enhance trust in the knowledge-generating social structures we depend upon. Of course, a certain proportion of people are always going to insist that scientists are secretly lying to us for profit or that doctors are incompetent or evil. The paranoid style, as Richard Hofstadter called it, will always be with us. And there will always be demagogues willing to exploit that paranoia, to turn expertise into an us-and-them conflict, or to feed resentment and flatter egos by telling people they know better than their GP or climatologists.
But such views can only gain broader traction if people are alienated from those sources of knowledge, if they see them as disconnected from and perhaps even hostile to their own lives and interests.
Technical knowledge is predominantly produced by universities, and utilised by a political class. These are institutions that are much harder to trust if university is a place that nobody like you goes to, or if nobody in the political class sounds like you. It’s much easier to see “government” as some sort of malign, alien force if you have no investment in its processes or hope of benefiting from them. Equally, when “government” means your friends and family who work in public service rather than a distant and abstract locus of force and authority, pervasive suspicion becomes harder to maintain.
Expertise denial has become a deeply corrosive feature of modern political society. It needs to be called out wherever it appears. But we also need to think about how we reduce people’s disconnection from the sources of epistemic authority. That is a far more wickedly difficult problem. It’s one we’ll still be dealing with long after Hanson’s second fifteen minutes are over. But we can’t wait until then to start.