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Today I spent the morning diving deep into the anti-vaccination, pro-vaccination debate.
You’re probably wondering why I would bother investigating such a contentious topic, when it seems clear that even if I do come to some kind of conclusion, neither side will budge on their position.
But that’s exactly why I did it.
Keeping an open mind
Recently, I’ve decided to keep more of an open mind. Usually an ABS, SBS and Guardian reader (which some may say is “left”), I have started to read articles from the Murdoch press and dabble in the odd Sky News program. In fact, I even went so far as to watch the news program by Andrew Bolt, the Bolt Report.
It has been interesting to say the least.
After successfully sitting through an entire hour of conservative commentary, most of which supported the leadership of Trump and the innocence of George Pell, I decided wanted to learn more. Not because I agreed with what Bolt was saying, it was in fact the opposite.
I wanted to listen to opinions I have consciously ignored for over a decade.
For too long I have been so fixed on my own view and my own opinion that I haven’t even bothered to listen to the other side. Well, except to fact check what they’re saying. And to be honest, the more I thought about my own investigation, the more I realised how few times that I have fact checked my “trusted” sources.
It was as if anything I already had an opinion on, I would take as fact.
This is what is known in science as Cognitive Bias
Once I conceded to the fact that I was not really looking at both sides of the spectrum when it came to news and views, I wanted to know WHY and how I could fix it.
So in the spirit of favouring facts and figures over opinion, I turned to the science of the mind, Psychology.
We are all biased, whether we want to admit it or not.
It turns out, humans are inherently biased. Psychological studies have shown that our minds are easily susceptible to favouring information that suits our own agenda. Scientists call these biases of the mind “Cognitive Biases” and they are not rare, in fact they characterise normal human cognitive function (Krieger, 1995).
“The ability to think logically is a hallmark of human intelligence, yet our innate inferential abilities are marked by implicit biases that often lead to illogical inference” (Ogawa, 2010).
Cognitive biases I am personally guilty of
There are too many types of cognitive biases to cover in detail here, so instead, will share the three I have found myself to be completely guilty of.
This bias is the most common, and is about selectively reading articles, watching television shows and interpreting information in a way that confirms what we already know or believe. Or finding opinions that interpret information in a way that confirms information we already have. You are often more likely to click on articles or watch videos that confirm what you already know or believe, rather than videos or articles that challenge your view.
For example if you thought saturated fat was bad for you, you would search for “How bad is saturated fat for you?” instead of “how can saturated fat benefit your body?”
Or, if I was to search on google for example for How bad is X for you
This has been my biggest flaw. Until about last week I was 100% guilty of this bias, in everything I posted, shared and wrote about. I would never look for information that could disprove my personal opinion (especially on politics and the environment). I was only searching for further information that would prove I was right.
If you have ever heard the saying “If everyone jumps of a cliff would you jump too?” This is an easy way to explain bandwagon bias, the act of doing something just because everyone else in the group is doing it.
This can manifest in work meetings, where one good idea is never spoken due to a group consensus that another idea is best, and in voting, whereby you vote for the most popular candidate. It also exists within the stock market, where brokers will sell corporate bonds because they have seen other brokers selling theirs.
I have personally been guilty of this many times whilst growing up, especially when I did not care about politics and just voted the way that my family did. I also was always pro vaccination because of the scientific articles I had read, without bothering to check the facts myself, which is why I am now investigating myself.
Selective Perception Bias
This type of bias is all about your frame of reference, and the way you see the world. What you look at, and what you don’t look at. How you select the information to listen to, which information you believe, and which information you then agree with.
Specifically, it’s about how our minds can ignore negative information about things we already know or agree with. Often it is our subconscious mind filtering this other information out.
This is something I am definitely guilty of. When I was interested in becoming super rich and successful, I focused mainly on how to make money in marketing. When I flicked my conscious switch and realised we are living on a planet with finite resources, yet searching for infinite economic growth, I started to focus on environment and climate change information.
To try and overcome this bias, I am trying to ensure that I look at all sides of the coin. Economics, politics and science (which includes our natural environment).
Down the rabbit hole
Until last year, I was never really pro or anti vaccination. However, my recent interest in science and passion to find out the scientific truth changed my perception and beliefs.
As I started to read pro-vaccination information, scientific papers and journals, media articles, my views began to get stronger. I saw that the resounding consensus from the scientific community was that vaccines were not harmful, and this was proven by the scientific community’s dismissal of Andrew Wakefield’s study in 1998.
The study, of only 12 children, suggested that the MMR vaccine could lead to ‘pervasive developmental disorder.’ Initially co-authored by twelve other scientists, ten retracted their names and involvement when legal action was taken by the medical community against Wakefield. These studies and the fact that Wakefield was found guilty, helped to form my opinion that the study was not accurate, and that anti-vaxxers were simply misled.
In forming this opinion, I was guilty of confirmation bias, bandwagon bias, and selective perception bias. This does not mean that pro vaccination is not the ‘correct’ stance, it just meant that I did not even look into why anti-vaxxers thought the way they did. Therefore, I cannot provide an unbiased judgement on the debate.
Learning about cognitive biases has given me a new worldview, and that is why I started my investigation into the anti-vaccination, pro-vaccination debate.
I have been watching videos and reading articles from multiple sources on both sides of the spectrum to try and gather as many facts as possible, before making a decision. These sources include the SciShow, the Independent, the Science Media Centre, the HighWire, the Guardian, the Casanova show and a video of Andrew Wakefield defending himself after he won his appeal and was declared “innocent” essentially by the US High Court.
Whilst I am in no way done with my investigation yet, I am trying to keep an open mind, and read everything from both sides before taking a side. Over the next few days, or maybe even weeks I will continue to document my findings, and hopefully at the end be able to present BOTH sides of the argument, with no bias.
However as you now know, this is impossible. So I will try to report it with as little bias as humanly possible.
Krieger, L. H. (1995). The content of our categories: A cognitive bias approach to discrimination and equal employment opportunity. Stanford Law Review, 1161–1248
Ogawa, A., Yamazaki, Y., Ueno, K., Cheng, K., & Iriki, A. (2010). Neural correlates of species-typical illogical cognitive bias in human inference. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(9), 2120–2130.