More on experience and evidence

A little while back I posted on Michael Specter’s attack on Andrew Weil for what Specter sees as “one of the most dangerous forms of denialism” (Janet Maslin’s wording), treating personal experience as of equal value to evidence from scientific testing: “The idea that accruing data is simply one way to think about science has become a governing tenet of the alternative belief system” (Specter). I connected this mode of thought to people’s inclinations to turn questions about language use into the retailing of anecdotes about personal experience.

But back to denialism. Yesterday on his blog, John McIntyre took up the topic of “virtuous ignorance”, echoing Specter’s outrage:

For a pure example of virtuous ignorance, it is hard to surpass Jenny McCarthy, the actress-turned-autism-advocate. Diane Sawyer invited her onto ABC News to denounce a study in Pediatrics, a medical journal, that determined that the special diets Ms. McCarthy advocates are ineffective. Her response was that it’s time that doctors “start listening to our anecdotal evidence.”

Ms. McCarthy, who has an autistic son, Evan, was previously granted a platform by Oprah Winfrey to discuss growing scientific evidence that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Ms. McCarthy rebutted it thus: ‘My science is Evan, and he’s at home. That’s my science.”

It is a puzzlement: In a technologically advanced society, in which lifespan and standards of living have been improved by more than two centuries of post-Enlightenment scientific research, a Jenny McCarthy can become an influential figure in public health. Increasingly, people believe what they wish to believe, against all evidence, especially if someone with whom they can identify, whom they see as a sincere person, agrees with them.

(I know, not a lot of linguistic content.)

One Response to “More on experience and evidence”

  1. Watch where you put that accent « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] and evidence” (of 12/17/09) and “More on experience and evidence” (of 1/19/10). The focus there was on “alternative belief systems” (alternative to science) based on […]

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