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When knowledge isn’t power

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In a March 18 interview, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin revealed his decision to intentionally expose his children to chickenpox in an effort to make them immune, rather than giving them the vaccine recommended by the medical community. Apart from being an astoundingly foolish action from a man who should have much better judgement, these remarks illustrate a troubling trend in contemporary American politics and culture: the aggressive rejection of reality and common knowledge. This phenomenon should cause all of us to consider the state of our political discourse and how our efforts to make change through the straightforward presentation of the best arguments may be lacking in effectiveness.

Governor Bevin’s comments did not just demonstrate his lack of scientific understanding; they also gave more credence to the anti-vaccine movement, one of the most dangerous political ideologies alive today. Its members believe that vaccines are dangerous and can cause diseases and disorders such as autism and that efforts to compel parents to vaccinate their children are an example of totalitarian government overreach.


None of that is true. But the crucial characteristic of this movement is that anti-vaxxers only seem to become more emboldened when facts are presented that contradict their case. They feel more validated by the fact that their stance strays from conventional wisdom. This could be funny if anti-vaxxer positions weren’t currently causing a resurgence in measles within the United States; hence, the anti-vaxxers’ insistence on living in their fantasy world is threatening herd immunity and putting lives at risk.

We cannot attribute this to a lack of education or exposure to the correct information, as those who choose not to vaccinate their children tend to be more wealthy and educated. A similar trend appears in the American attitude towards climate change. We cannot blame lack of knowledge for the common American refusal to recognize climate change. Like the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, the existence and threat of climate change is not up for debate, yet there remains a substantial portion of the country that not only refuses to believe in it, but forges a portion of their political identity around acting as a contrarian to the scientific community that has been warning us about global warming for decades. This is further exemplified by President Trump denying his own government’s climate change report, or Texas Senator John Cornyn waffling on the issue, despite the fact that his state was recently devastated by Hurricane Harvey, a storm made worse by climate change.

The same resistance to facts that makes parents put their children at risk also compels elected officials to ignore natural disasters that affect their constituents. This state of mind seems to find the denial of the obvious as a goal unto itself, as if there is something to be won or gained in showing the steadfastness of one’s beliefs even in the face of an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary. 

How we are supposed to react to such attitudes? As college students, we are taught to have a great respect for academia and truth-seeking, and for those of us who want to enter into some sort of public service or advocacy career, this trend should be quite distressing. How can we hope to have any impact on the world if the knowledge we acquire on how to solve some of the most pressing issues, such as infectious diseases and global warming, is routinely ignored?

The answer may lie in reexamining our definitions of what knowledge is. In an ideal, world we would be able to simply present the necessary evidence and convert others to our cause. However, this is unfortunately not the case. We live in a world in which convincing others to reevaluate their beliefs takes much more than proving them wrong. It requires an understanding of why they insist on their position and what they seem to be gaining by refusing to concede. It demands an evaluation of our modern culture in which being opposed to the other side seems to takes precedence over the common good.

This is another type of knowledge, a kind that is not practiced or taught nearly enough on college campuses such as our own. The ability to understand the nuances of why people believe what they do is just as important as developing the expertise necessary to improve their quality of life. If we are unable to relate to the outside world, then we will be unable to offer our services to it. This is a crucial idea to keep in mind as we spend our time at Princeton achieving a higher understanding of all sorts of subjects. If we do not possess the social skills necessary to present what we know in a manner acceptable to our fellow citizens, then our advice may be rejected, no matter how sound it is. 


I do not know if there is a right way to convince climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers of the error of their beliefs. We may be too far gone in the culture war for any kind of reconciliation on these controversies. Yet, if we want to avoid the next wedge issue that not only divides us as a populace but also threatens our lives, then it is essential that we start thinking more about how to argue with others, not just whether we are on the right side.

Benjamin Gelman is a first-year from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at  

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