The following article originally appeared in the Well Beings newsletter,
a publication of Vaccinations Alternatives, NYC
Accent on Advocacy
By Gary Krasner
The facts are on your side, so naturally you think you'll persuade your
audience. But facts may be less important than what that audience already
Believing In A Sound Theory Of Health:
Developing An Effective Strategy, Part 2
I'll never believe a fact unless it's supported by a plausible theory.
About 25 years ago radio talk show host Barry Farber had said that often.
If he's on the air somewhere today, I'm sure he's still saying it. It is
an important concept to understand. In fact, to be an effective advocate
against the status quo, you should understand this concept before
What I think Mr. Farber meant, and what I've subsequently learned on my
own, is that people tend to quickly form conclusions or theories about
novel experiences or information based upon surprisingly little
corroborative evidence. We arrive at a view of how the world works as
early as childhood. By adulthood, we have developed a comprehensive
system of social, political, religious, ethical, and philosophical
beliefs that are all in accord with each other, as we see it. When new
information comes to our attention, we test it against these constructs.
If the information supports or helps to explain the construct, then the
information is accepted as true and is seamlessly integrated into it. If
not, then it's the information that's rejected; not the construct.
There are several reasons why we do this. One of them relates to our need
for certainty. All theories have one thing in common: they help people to
make predictions about their world. It can be very costly to require
experiential evidence for every novel event before we react to it.
Perhaps you've never had direct experience caring for an infant, but you
know never to let one hold a razor blade. You've never been mugged, but
you know better than to walk down a dark alley in a bad area. And you
know that the flu is contagious, so you know that you should get the flu
vaccine. Right? There's the problem: The difficulty in getting people to
accept something new and different is that the many disparate things that
they've already accepted have become tightly bound into their core belief
systems-or theories about life. There may be no apparent connection
between some of the things they accept. Perhaps they were just learned at
an early age from a parent or teacher. But the bottom line is this: As an
advocate, it's not enough for the information you present to be valid and
accurate for people to accept it. It must also conform to their
pre-accepted system of beliefs. As long as those beliefs serve them,
people are not prepared to abandon them on the basis of mere facts alone.
I hadn't paid much attention to the aforementioned Farberism until I
learned disturbing facts about established and accepted health-related
issues, like water fluoridation, vaccination, the standard meat-based
diet, and various aspects of conventional medicine. When I related these
facts to other people, it didn't alter their faith in these practices.
Facts alone didn't seem to have enough of an impact.
As some of you may have learned, citing serious adverse reactions alone
is insufficient to shift public opinion against vaccination. Proponents
say that such reactions occur infrequently (albeit, not demonstrated
satisfactorily) compared to the total number of doses administered, and
therefore the benefits, they allege, outweigh the risks. Also,
challenging vaccine effectiveness has also had a limited impact. The way
that the conventional theory of germs and viruses was formulated and
periodically revised guarantees that vaccination shows efficacy, despite
when medical studies indicate that a vaccine has failed based on their
own precepts and assumptions of immunity, resistance, and the like. The
structure allows for the acknowledgment that some vaccines may fail, but
not the practice of vaccination itself. Not the basic belief.
In February, 1994 I gained a deeper understanding and confirmation of
this dynamic after viewing the final episode of the acclaimed BBC-TV
documentary series, The Day The Universe Changed. The series examined
pivotal scientific achievements throughout history. The final episode was
titled, Worlds Without End: A Personal View by James Burke. (Burke wrote
and presented this series, as well as the subsequent BBC science series',
Connections and Connections 2). The Worlds Without End episode was a work
of singular distinction and insight in the way science really operates.
The episode opened with a re-enactment of a trial of a woman accused of
witchcraft in 17th Century Scotland. Apparently, ill-fortune had befallen
many of those who had come in contact with her. To the viewer, every word
spoken during the trial was understandable. Even their "humane" intent to
burn the woman alive-supposedly to free her soul-had an internal logic to
it. "They were as certain of their facts as we are of ours" [Burke]. But
obviously it didn't fit our view of the world today. Still, how far
removed are we from modern versions of this kind of paradox? If any fact
can show validity (can be explained) in the right universe (the construct
we choose to believe in), then how do we know which universe to believe
in: Homeopathy, Allopathy, Natural Hygiene, Herbalism, or what?
Burke then used the analogy of optical illusions to show how we "alter
reality [in our mind] to make something fit what we feel it should be."
And only one theory can be accepted: Burke showed how a picture can show
two different things, but we can see only one of them at a time. "Without
that structure-a theory of what's there-you don't see anything. Science
is the same: without hypotheses-preconceptions about the world-you can't
ask the right questions in research to test its validity. For things to
make sense, you have to make up your mind about them in advance."
[Burke]. But, he warned that "sometimes the hypothesis is so strong
you'll see things that aren't there", because it is part of a structure
that "provides a rule book for the kinds of questions you ask about the
world, because it gives you a theory of how things are supposed to work".
Burke illustrated this with the notorious fake fossil remains-known as
Piltdown Man-that had been discovered in England in 1912. For forty years
thereafter archeologists ignored mounting evidence doubting its validity,
"because science was expecting to find the missing link between ape and
man with a developed brain."
Burke said, "Structure controls how science in particular progresses.
Science is thought to be objective; seeking and discovering the truth.
But the truth is what the structure says it is. There is progress and
change, but that happens because the rules of the structure controls
investigation at every level, until you get down to a bit of detail that
the structure can't handle."
To be fair, Burke generously peppered this episode with many examples
from the history of scientific discovery. Yet on that last point I would
single out allopathic medicine as being amazingly resilient to those
"bits of detail". Just one of many examples was the "problem" of
bacterial pleomorphism that had plagued (pun intended) proponents of the
germ theory. Pleomorphism refers to the transformation of one distinct
strain of bacteria into other strains within a single life cycle. For
example, the virulent tubercle bacillus could be made to degenerate into
harmless non "acid-fast" cocci, and then into "diphtheroid" coccobacilli
just by altering their food or environment. Fixed species of bacteria is
the central part of the biomedical model of specific etiology of disease
(classifying a specific germ as the singular causative agent of a
specific disease). But pleomorphism implies that it is based upon a
faulty construct. Pasteur explained away the contradiction to prior
contamination of the specimen. Others disputed variability of bacteria to
different degrees. Later, bacteriologists allowed for some
transformations, but only between some strains, and restricted in its
range. Today, what bacteriologists actually think of this phenomenon is
no longer an issue in any practical sense. The classical Germ Theory has
become institutionalized and entrenched into modern clinical medicine.
Microbiological research is guided by the economic needs of that
structure, as Burke would refer to it. A case in point: In Sept. 1978,
the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress issued a report
entitled, Assessing the Efficacy and Safety of Medical Technologies
stating in part, "It has been estimated that only 10 to 20 percent of all
procedures currently in medical practice have been shown to be
efficacious by controlled trial." Had the study become widely known, few
people would have stopped seeing their doctor. Because belief in a
structure trumps facts.
With interesting historical examples as illustrations along the way,
Burke concludes: "What you think the universe is and how it works,
controls the kinds of questions you can ask-not some supposedly detached
scientific view of things. Whole areas of investigation can be off limits
when it looks as if the results may contradict the accepted view. It is
the structure-the current view of things-that controls what science does
at every level: from the cosmic questions of the whole universe, to what
bits of that universe are worth investigating; to how far you let the
questions take you; what experiments you do; what evidence you can and
cannot accept. It even tells you what instruments you should use." ".
. . The whole argument comes full circle when you get to the raw data
itself-because it isn't 'raw data'. It's what you planned to find from
the start. Then when some detail doesn't fit, that's when you see science
hanging on like grim death to stop the rug from being pulled out from
years of happy status quo."
Burke made no references to vaccination or infectious diseases, but it
sounds like he could have been describing them. In terms of its message,
Burke's presentation was nothing less than a landmark achievement for a
television broadcast. The message for us is clear. Theories, constructs,
structures, systems, paradigms-whatever you want to call them-determine
what we believe; not stray facts. It suggests that conversion is a slow
process, and is affected by pre-existing beliefs. So, for example,
political conservatives would generally be more receptive to opposing
mandatory vaccinations because it is in line with their views that favor
less government involvement in our lives. From there it would be facile
for them to accept various medical critiques of vaccination, because it
builds upon an established construct. Liberals however, would more likely
resist your message, because they see all public health measures as
egalitarian and benevolent. Given limited time and resources, it's
important for advocates to understand these dynamics.
According to Burke, conflicting structures have never coexisted
peacefully. One structure must always supplant another. An important
consideration for a parent: How can anyone believe that their child's
measles is a self-limiting discharge of waste through the skin (Natural
Hygiene), and also believe that it's a viral attack that may consume him
unless drugs are used (Allopathy)?
In our May '98 issue, I tried to show that parents who oppose vaccination
must understand an alternative paradigm to allopathic medicine to support
their decision not to vaccinate. They should understand the real function
of (inflammatory) diseases and know the correct steps to take when they
occur. They'd also be able to defend themselves with knowledge and
conviction against the pressures of the majority view. Also, if we hope
to influence public opinion about vaccination, we have to begin now to
offer another theory that explains observations and information in a way
that is different from the currently accepted construct; a theory that
does not suggest that disease is transmissible between people, nor that a
drug must be mandated to prevent it.
Acknowledging the virtue of self-examination, Barry Farber would sign off
every broadcast with the phrase, "keep asking questions". Next time, I'll
ask hard questions about some of the belief systems that we believe, and
which one has the best chance to succeed over the prevailing system of
Gary Krasner is the Director of Coalition For Informed Choice
Prior columns may be obtained free via email.