Originally published on the author’s Substack.
When we have invested too much in our beliefs to dump them.
I just arrived on Maui to visit my brother and to conduct a couple of in-person interviews. My brother is a general contractor, and this morning he told me a remarkable story about a client—an extremely successful, intelligent, honest, and polite man—who had, until recently, enjoyed perfect health.
A while back, during a meeting with my brother, he complained of being unwell. For months he’d felt constantly fatigued and compelled to take frequent naps, which he’d never experienced before. His doctors on the mainland had initially suspected a blood disorder, perhaps even leukemia, but had been unable to detect any disease. And so his symptoms remained idiopathic.
Knowing the man had fervently embraced the COVID-19 vaccine, my brother asked him: “Would you consider opening your mind to the possibility that your condition was caused by the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters you have received?”
“Let me tell you something,” he replied. “Where I come from, we trust our doctors, and my doctor told me the vaccine is safe and effective.”
“Yes, but your doctor didn’t create the vaccine,” my brother replied. “The gangsters at Pfizer their cronies did.”
The man was so appalled by this that he abruptly ended the meeting and hasn’t contacted my brother ever since.
Hearing this story reminded me of snippets I’d read about the so-called “Backfire Bias.” The term is used to describe a cognitive affliction that sometimes happens to people who are heavily INVESTED in a proposition—that is, their belief in something is bound with their identity and self-esteem as intelligent and educated adults.
The saying (often attributed to Mark Twain), ”It’s easier to fool a man than to convince him he’s been fooled,” refers to something akin to Backfire Bias.
Researching this bias was a strange experience for me, because one of the first papers I found was Nyhan B., Reifler J. When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior. 2010.
The paper explicates the Backfire Bias that occurred among many who were, because of their political identities and sentiments, heavily invested in the proposition that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction. When this cohort was presented with evidence to the contrary, many found the proposition that Saddam did NOT possess WMD so appalling that they simply refused to believe it. Instead they concluded that only deceivers with an agenda to discredit President George W. Bush would make such a terrible claim.
Reading this paper brought back memories of my own initial investment in the belief that President Bush was telling the truth, and the ego-bruising experience of having to accept that I’d been a sucker. To my credit, I was swift and decisive in acknowledging this reality, and I’ve been very reluctant to trust any president ever since. One might even say I am now biased against believing any US president.
The 2010 paper made me curious to know more about the lead author—Dartmouth College political science professor, Brendan Nyhan. It seems that his paper drew a lot of favorable attention and research money to the good professor, because since then he has written multiple papers about dealing with cognitive biases as they pertain to . . . you guessed it—VACCINE HESITANCY.
Vaccine hesitancy is, apparently, one of the greatest social and cognitive problems of our era, and many of our brightest minds have been recruited to extirpate it.
As is characteristic of the critical literature on vaccine hesitancy, the authors start with the proposition that there is no reason to be vaccine hesitant. In Nyhan and Reifler’s paper, Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial, they claim to discern evidence of Backfire Bias in parents who are concerned about the purported link between MMR vaccines and autism.
None of the interventions increased parental intent to vaccinate a future child. Refuting claims of an MMR/autism link successfully reduced misperceptions that vaccines cause autism but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes. In addition, images of sick children increased expressed belief in a vaccine/autism link and a dramatic narrative about an infant in danger increased self-reported belief in serious vaccine side effects.
Nowhere in the paper do the authors consider the possibility that there may be (at least in some cases) a link between MMR vaccination and autism. They begin their analysis with the assumption that reports about this link are unfounded and erroneous.
The irony of this assumption—presented by an expert on cognitive biases—is that the fervent embrace of vaccines as the panacea to infectious diseases must surely be one of the greatest biases in all of human history. Rarely if ever do doctrinaire mass vaccination advocates even consider the possibility that most infectious diseases were largely eradicated by advanced public sanitation infrastructure and indoor plumbing that provides reliably clean water for drinking, food preparation, regular hand washing, and household hygiene such as regular linen washing. Moreover, MANY of the infectious diseases that have historically afflicted mankind are easily treatable with antibiotics. Even the 1918 Spanish Flu could have been treatable with antibiotics (had they been available) because most deaths were likely caused by secondary bacterial infection of the lungs.
One of our country’s most important freedoms is that of free speech.
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