Sunday, June 2, 2019

Bernice L. Hausman's "Anti/Vax"

Bernice L. Hausman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Humanities and Professor of Public Health Sciences at the Penn State College of Medicine.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Anti/Vax: Reframing the Vaccination Controversy, and reported the following:
Page 99 occurs in the middle of a chapter that explores science denial. In this chapter, I question whether a broad category called science denial is a good way to explain people’s concerns about the reality of climate change, the safety of genetically-modified foods, or that AIDS is caused by HIV, as well as vaccine refusal. On page 99, I argue that trust, not scientific reasoning, is the basis for many people’s belief in climate change as a reality. This trust is not entirely rational, but based in other factors, often affective or historical. Thus, for example, I tell a story about how shocked I was when a speaker at a conference claimed that a 75% reduction in energy usage would be necessary to combat global warming: “I am persuaded, then, because I think that climate scientists would tell such stories only if they were truly afraid of the consequences of not doing anything to reduce global warming. I believe in them.” The page ends with a short discussion of my own disposition toward “doomsday scenarios and depressive fiction,” moving toward a more developed argument on the following page that “belief in evidence is culturally situated; it is not just an effect of cognitive processes. It is both inside and outside of us as individuals, and is affected by politics, culture, social networks, temperament, and the way we understand scientific evidence to be related to personal experience.” This latter point is connected to my argument throughout the chapter that using psychological theories to explain people’s resistance to vaccines, climate change, or GMOs (for example) is limited because such an approach cannot address what, in particular, bothers people about these things. It is a generalizing gesture that is necessary to make an argument about science denial in general, but it is limiting because it can’t address the specific concerns people hold.

The test results with reference to Anti/Vax are ambivalent. Page 99 is illustrative of my approach in Anti/Vax, but not representative. It is taken up with personal examples, and while I do use personal examples throughout the book to make certain kinds of arguments, I don’t always or even primarily argue through my own experience. As a result, I think that turning to page 99 gives the reader the wrong impression of the evidentiary basis of the book. I refer to my experience to punctuate arguments that are also made on other grounds, usually through close analysis of texts and other kinds of data and discourse.

Page 99 is interesting because it focuses on trust, which is a persistent theme in the book. Lack of trust in medicine, medical providers, pharmaceutical companies, and government bureaucrats is a significant problem that permeates vaccine resistance and other antimedicine positions. What engenders trust? Rational thinking and agreement on key points of data? Or affective and culturally situated responses, based in a variety of factors that are linked to experience, culture, and identity? I answer the question in the second way, and in the chapter in which page 99 falls, I explore these issues.

One of the more interesting things that I do in this chapter is to compare science denial with Holocaust denial, which, counterintuitively, teaches us that truth is always contingent. It depends on belief and trust, not only scientific or historical method. Setting Holocaust denial alongside science denial is a powerful way of showing that neither science nor history can produce facts that are universally accepted.

This chapter highlights the breadth of Anti/Vax as a book that addresses numerous cultural concerns and shows how they pertain to vaccine resistance. Instead of isolating vaccination dissent as an unorthodox and alien trend, I demonstrate how it is related to other, more commonly accepted, dispositions and themes of modern societies.
Learn more about Anti/Vax at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue