Anti-Vaxxers, Conspiracy Theories & Epistemic Responsibility
Published on May 16, 2016
Today we explore what obligations we hold with our personal beliefs. Hank explains epistemic responsibility and the issues it raises with everything from religious belief, to ship owning, to vaccinations.
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:09For generations, just about everybody in the United States got vaccinations.
0:13And I’m sure there will be no conversation about this in the comments.
0:15And as a result, diseases like measles were all but eradicated.
0:18But in 1998, a study published in a scientific journal linked vaccines with autism.
0:23Even though that study was later discredited, ever since then,
0:26a small but vocal subset of parents have refused to vaccinate their kids.
0:30Now, measles are back, as is whooping cough, mumps, and other diseases that were nearly wiped out.
0:35Children’s lives are being endangered because some parents are acting on beliefs that have
0:39no scientific evidence to support them.
0:41So, why am I talking about this on Crash Course Philosophy?
0:43Normally, when we talk about responsibility, we’re talking about things that you do.
0:47But in philosophy, we sometimes face other obligations.
0:49Some philosophers have argued that we all have epistemic responsibility –
0:54that is, responsibility we have regarding our beliefs.
0:56Epistemic responsibility is an especially interesting area of philosophy
1:00because it’s where many of its sub-disciplines overlap –
1:02where epistemology brushes up against philosophy of religion, which bumps into ethics.
1:06And philosophers might argue that we live in a world that could probably use a lot more epistemic responsibility –
1:11or at least, more people who understand what it is.
1:14Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, conspiracy theorists.
1:16The world is full of people who hold beliefs without any evidence.
1:19And not only that, they – like most of us – encourage others to share their beliefs.
1:23But over the past 200 years or so, philosophers have developed some pretty compelling responses to this phenomenon.
1:28A few thinkers have come up with useful ways of thinking about the beliefs we have,
1:32and the harm they can cause, and what responsibilities go along with having them.
1:36Meanwhile, others have argued that we can sometimes hold beliefs without any proof.
1:40Not about vaccines, or global warming, or the moon landing – but about God.
1:54W.K. Clifford lived in England in the mid-1800s, where the only vaccine that existed was for smallpox,
2:00and even that earned its share of scorn and ridicule at the time.
2:03But Clifford, who was both a mathematician and a philosopher,
2:06would probably have some very strong opinions about today’s anti-vaxxers.
2:09Because Clifford was one of the leading proponents of epistemic responsibility of his time.
2:13He most famously, and bluntly, put it this way:
2:16“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
2:21And instead of using vaccinations as an example, Clifford told the story of a ship owner.
2:25He said, suppose there was a guy who owned a ship that he knew was old and decrepit and hadn’t been inspected in a long time.
2:31That ship was scheduled to make a transatlantic voyage, and the owner worried that it might not make it.
2:36But, overhauling the ship would be pricey and time-consuming.
2:39In time, the owner talked himself into believing that the ship was seaworthy.
2:43The ship set sail. Then it sank. And hundreds of people drowned.
2:46But, the owner? He collected insurance money from his loss, and no one blamed him for the tragedy.
2:51Now, most people would agree that the shipowner was responsible for the deaths of the ship’s passengers.
2:55But Clifford went even further.
2:57He argued that the owner would have been guilty even if the ship managed to make the trip safely.
3:02Because: He was guilty of accepting a belief without sufficient evidence,
3:06and whether that actually leads to harm or not, he has still done wrong, epistemically and morally.
3:11Now, you might argue, “Don’t I have the right to believe whatever I want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone?”
3:17Yeah, good question. Clifford argued that there’s no such thing as a private belief.
3:21Because: We all talk about our beliefs – some of us do it a lot – and it causes our beliefs to spread.
3:26But even if you never vocalize a belief, it still influences the way you act and the way others perceive you.
3:32So in this way, a belief can spread subtly, insidiously, without a word being spoken.
3:37Think about other kinds of beliefs that lack evidence, for example sexist beliefs.