Who’s More Believable: Science Expert or Random Internet Commenter?

Doctor computer - wtf you gotta be kidding meIn the latest battle of the war on science, many ignorant parents are risking the lives of their children and others by choosing not to vaccinate their children. This is a terrible idea, but the false, unethical, fraudulent, discredited, expunged research that claimed to have found a link between vaccines and autism (which is not even remotely true, in case that wasn’t clear enough) has lived on because of celebrity endorsements and a campaign of stupidity. Unfortunately, a new study shows that when it comes to the dissemination of information, vaccine experts are seen as no more credible than a random commenter on the internet.

Experts vs. Commenters

The study from Washington State University is described from Vocativ as followed:

Researchers conducted a pair of experiments with 129 participants. In the first experiment, the study’s subjects were shown two mock public service announcements, one that purported to be a pro-vaccination message sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the other an anti-vaccination message from the National Vaccine Information Center. They were then shown a series of fictitious online comments that appeared to be in response to the official messages. The participants were given no information at all about the commenters.

After reviewing the PSAs and comments, the participants completed a questionnaire about their opinions on vaccination. To their surprise, the researchers found that the participants were as persuaded by the commenters as they were by the PSAs, even though they had no knowledge of commenters’ background or expertise.

“That kind of blew us away,” says Ioannis Kareklas, the study’s lead author. “People were trusting the random online commenters just as much as the PSA itself.”

The researchers replicated the study afterwards, telling participants that the comments were not random, but were instead written by literature student, a health care lobbyist, and a doctor who specializes in infectious diseases. In this case, the comment was more persuasive when it the participants believed they were written by the doctor. I suppose this is a good thing, though I would of course concede that just because you have an MD it doesn’t mean you are smart, or even right about your medical advice. In fact, plenty of TV doctors have profitable nonsense propagated to millions of viewers every day, including the most famous, Dr. Oz.

What’s going on here?

The first problem is cultural. It starts with the fact that we have become so obsessed with famous people like celebrities, that we actually listen to what they have to say simply for being recognizable; not for being knowledgeable. (There’s no better example of this in the so-called vaccine “debate” than Jenny McCarthy).

Then the media covers such stories trying to be “neutral,” saying “well you say vaccines are good, but she says they’re not, so let’s hear both opinions.” But giving equal time to both sides is not actually fair, because it falsely makes it appear as if they are equal. Let’s be clear – they’re not. If we looked at the evidence for a link between vaccines and autism,  it would stack up in the same way as a debate between someone who believes the earth is flat and everyone else who has graduated elementary school. No one cares about your anecdotes and hunches; when talking about something as important as public health and safety, the only thing that matters is the scientific evidence.

The other problem is a social psychological one. Think about that message you see when you browse an online retail store like Amazon… “Other people who have bought this item have also bought…” Indeed, one aspect of our psychology that’s being exploited by various companies is the fact that we like getting recommendations. According to Gigaom,”Netflix claims that 75 percent of what [movies] people watch comes from some sort of a recommendation.” But that is often a recommendation from a friend (or someone you know on Facebook). But we are so much more simple-minded than that.

Receiving a recommendation from a friend can be a powerful motivator to buy, but there’s also merely getting a recommendation from someone unbiased (or at least, someone you perceive to be unbiased). For example, if your friend works for a shoe store and she tells you that she found a great shoe for you, she is possibly biased (e.g., she thinks her own brand is the best, she wants to make commission off a sale, etc.). And who is more unbiased than a random person on the internet? You don’t know each other, so they have no reason to lie about a product being good. At least, that’s the idea.

Combine the two and you get an unbiased friend, the power of which might be exemplified in the success of Tupperware parties – a bizarre cultural phenomenon whereby friends have organized commercialization-themed parties. But we’re so simple-minded that not being friends is not such a big deal. Since we like people who are like ourselves, the mere similarity of someone buying what we might have bought makes us more likely to take into consideration what some random person (or people) view as good enough to purchase. (“Well if everyone else likes this book as well, maybe it would be good to buy too?”)

So what does this have to do with vaccines? Regarding the study above, there was no bias on the part of the anonymous commenters – they could have been anyone. It’s the same thing as the anonymous recommendation on Amazon.  For Amazon, you’re being influenced by a nameless consumer on Amazon who has no stake in your purchase. It’s basically the same thing as in this study.

You may also be interested in… (the solution)

The answer is, as usual, education. But not how you think.

Yes, of course, being educated on the vaccine-related science in question would solve a lot of problems; but I mean education in general. People who are highly educated (for example, with a MSc, PhD, MD, etc.) presumably had to work hard in their studies. If you earn a doctorate, we can make a legitimate assumption that you are an expert in that field. And considering how hard it is to obtain such a degree (there’s a reason they call it “publish or perish”), people who have finished such advanced degrees surely appreciate the difficulty of making that achievement. So when someone else earns it, these more educated people would have a sense of the expertise of someone else.

For example, if someone with a PhD in brain science talks to someone with a PhD in astrophysics, of course they wouldn’t totally understand each other’s fields, but they would appreciate how much the other knew, because they would be cognizant of their own expertise. Compare this to a high-school dropout (no offense to my high-school dropout readership) who cannot fathom the level of expertise in either of these highly educated individuals. Obviously if the general population is not educated, they often cannot appreciate the difference between their knowledge and an expert’s knowledge of a subject. (See: Dunning-Kruger effect)

So my solution is not a particularly pragmatic one – raise the educational level of the general population. I’m assuming this would only start with a radical change in economics, which would only happen with a major change in politics. But now we’re getting into the specifics of individual countries, as there are already several nations that provide completely free university education (and yes, even in English).

Maybe that’s why you don’t see so many anti-vaccination movements in those countries.

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