I am constantly bombarded with links to articles and videos by professors, doctors, PhDs and the likes who claim that vaccines are harmful, dangerous and ineffective at preventing infectious diseases. I am also bombarded with links to articles and videos by investigative journalists who claim that pro-vaccine scientists are in the pay of Bill Gates, Big Pharm companies and/or other figures commonly present in various conspiracy theories.
Excruciatingly, the author of these links -- that is, my aunt -- does not only send them to me; she preaches vaccine-related conspiracy theories to most of the family, including my old grandfather, who -- by the love of God -- should please not get vaccined against Covid, lest he endangers his health far more than by contracting the disease. Having heard numerous times about the purported terrible side effects of the vaccine and about how many doctors and scientist warn against it he himself starts repeating such theories to people he knows. Are conspiracy theories just as contagious as a virus?
"It is not true what mainstream media say that the so-called conspiracy theorists reject reason and science and do not base their beliefs on evidence", my conspiracy theory preaching aunt says. "The evidence is all around here! Just take a look at it! Broaden your horizons finally! Stop listening only to one group, the WHO, and stop being in denial of all of these facts I'm trying to open your eyes to!"
My point of view is that becoming acquainted with all of this material and arguments presented there is likely to be useless to further my understanding of the topic. Judging such arguments requires lots of competence and expertise I do not have. All I am likely to achieve after spending days, weeks and months of listening to hours of YouTube videos, writing down their points and trying to verify them are dilemmas like these:
- Investigative journalist X claims Y, but Snopes and Reuters say this is fake news; how can demonstrate that Snopes and Reuters are not lying?
- Prof W says vaccines cause disease X, but prof Y ridicules this; in addition, prof W has been fired from institute Z for falsifying his research and spreading dangerous misinformation, but he (in tandem with investigative journalist V) says that libeling him is all institute Z could do to save their reputation after he had exposed their corrupt ways. But I am not a scientist to be able to judge whether it was prof W or prof Y who falsified their research!
Therefore I pull out the epistemological rule that non-experts should defer to the scientific consensus in their judgement of scientific claims. It is dangerous to try to judge arguments on one's own, since many false and misleading arguments seem to be sound and convincing to non-experts.
However, my aunt does seem to have convincing arguments against this epistemological rule...
What is this scientific consensus? Is it what the WHO and mainstream universities say? Of course all scientists from mainstream universities say vaccines are harmless and important to maintain public health, since all those who said otherwise have already been fired from universities. Of course you will have trouble finding papers in mainstream scientific journals that demonstrate the harmfulness of vaccines, since such papers are not published there and those few that were published are retracted. All that is demonstrated by the argument from scientific consensus is that a group selected for a certain opinion uniformly asserts this opinion, which is kind of obvious, but implies nothing about the truthfulness of this opinion.
For this reason it is important to count, and not dismiss, scientists commonly described as "fringe scientists", "pseudoscientists", "crackpots" and the likes when we are talking about scientific consensus. If we dismiss them on the basis that they are not bona fide scientists (because they disagree with the consensus and therefore are crackpots) and then describe the consensus only according to the beliefs of those we have not excluded then our reasoning is circular.
But even if it can be demonstrated that even if we count all scientists (not just those employed by mainstream universities and publishing in mainstream journals) still most support vaccines then this still means little. Few people have the courage to say what they believe in even though they know that by doing so they will be fired from their job, will lose funding for their research and will be called names by mainstream media ("quack", "pseudoscientist", "conspiracy monger" are among the most courteous insults). Many will instead chose to say what is good for their careers. Many others don't dig into the issue because they simply believe and repeat what their colleagues are saying, again making the argument from consensus circular. But if a scientist did chose to dissent, did conduct research and concluded that vaccines were harmful and ineffective, did accuse his collegues of corruption and as a result was fired from their university, lost funding and was ostracized then at least we know they are sincere and believe in what they are saying.
For this reason I believe that independence from universities, from the system of grants, in one word independence from mainstream science is a quality of a scientist and not a blemish, as it is commonly presented. Also for this reason I believe that, when assessing what is and what is not a scientific consensus we must downscale the weight of mainstream universities and the WHO. They should not be rejected entirely, but treated as a group holding certain beliefs that are not a priori more probable than the beliefs of any group that is described to be in the fringe. In particular, if multiple "fringe" -- or rather, we should say, "independent" -- scientists hold a belief that is contradictory to the beliefs that are put forth by governmental agencies, mainstream universities and the WHO then we must conclude that most groups hold opinions contradictory to those of the WHO. And in the case of vaccines we see numerous independent scientists who, independently of each other, argue that vaccines are harmful and ineffective. Many groups that are independent of each other and of This One Group that is touted to be authoritative vs. This One Group that is touted to be authoritative. This means that the consensus is not pro-vaccines; on the contrary, it can be argued that the consensus is against vaccines!
(Note that vaccines are just an example; similar argumentation can be put forth to back up multiple examples of what is officially described as "alternative medicine", "snake oil", "quackery", such as fad diets -- and yes, my aunt is also a big fan of fad diets the WHO warns against.)
I cannot help but I must say I find such argumentation at least superficially convincing. What is most unsettling is not even that it warns against vaccines, but that it challenges epistemological basics such as the reasoning behind trusting mainstream science and not crackpots. Once this rule is gone, I'm afraid the descent will not end at not trusting vaccines, but we are going to end up seriously considering any number of outlandish, weird theories, such as the depopulation conspiracy theory and chemtrails, (both promoted by my aunt as well).
If there is any weakness in the above reasoning I could find it will be perhaps this one: Even if there is a fundamental conflict of interest among mainstream scientists (as my aunt claims) then dissenters, fringe scientists, alternative medicine promoters, whistleblowers and conspiracy theory promoters are often also not free of similar conflicts of interest. On the contrary, they often make a living by selling books with their theories, giving conferences, having lots views on YouTube, selling treatments they claim to be effective against common ailments, etc, etc. They thus have an interest in upholding their beliefs.
If and how can the rule of the recourse to scientific consensus be upheld in the light of such arguments against this rule? Or does the practice of firing dissenters from universities and calling them names in mainstream media indeed invalidate this rule, as my aunt argues?