Vaccine denialism: A response to gender inequality?

I recently came across an interesting article about vaccine denialism written by Mark Navin, an assistant professor in the Philosophy Department at Oakland University. Navin argues that vaccine denialism is in some sense a response to the authoritarianism of mainstream medicine, fostering democratic communities. He adopts a feminist perspective because the interactions that occur among vaccine denialists are often influenced by gender, and that vaccine denialism may in fact be explained by the oppression of women. While Navin recognize that mothers have good reasons to be skeptical of physicians’ claims about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, denialists manifest poor epistemic practices, including epistemic relativism and a failure to recognize expertise. One of Navin’s more interesting statements in the paper is that authoritarian pediatrician-parent relationships might be necessary (though unfortunate) in order to encourage recognition of differences in expertise and competence. Here’s the abstract:

Recent increases in the rates of parental refusal of routine childhood vaccina- tion have eroded many countries’ “herd immunity” to communicable diseases. Some parents who refuse routine childhood vaccines do so because they deny the mainstream medical consensus that vaccines are safe and effective. I argue that one reason these vac- cine denialists disagree with vaccine proponents about the reasons in favor of vaccination is because they also disagree about the sorts of practices that are conducive to good rea- soning about healthcare choices. Vaccine denialists allocate epistemic authority more democratically than do mainstream medical professionals. They also sometimes make truth ascriptions for nonepistemic reasons, fail to recognize legitimate differences in ex- pertise and competence, and seek uncritical affirmation of their existing beliefs. By fo- cusing on the different epistemic values and practices of vaccine denialists and main- stream medical professionals, I locate my discussion of vaccine denialism within broader debates about rationality. Furthermore, I argue that gender inequality and gendered con- ceptions of reason are important parts of the explanation of vaccine denialism. Accord- ingly, I draw upon feminist work—primarily feminist social epistemology—to help ex- plain and evaluate this form of vaccine refusal.

Navin, M. (2013). Competing Epistemic Spaces. Social Theory and Practice,39(2), 241-264.