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Social Theory and Practice

Volume 39, Issue 2, April 2013

Mark Navin
Pages 241-264
DOI: 10.5840/soctheorpract201339214

Competing Epistemic Spaces
How Social Epistemology Helps Explain and Evaluate Vaccine Denialism

Recent increases in the rates of parental refusal of routine childhood vaccination 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 vaccine 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 reasoning 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 expertise and competence, and seek uncritical affirmation of their existing beliefs. By focusing on the different epistemic values and practices of vaccine denialists and mainstream medical professionals, I locate my discussion of vaccine denialism within broader debates about rationality. Furthermore, I argue that gender inequality and gendered conceptions of reason are important parts of the explanation of vaccine denialism. Accordingly, I draw upon feminist work—primarily feminist social epistemology—to help explain and evaluate this form of vaccine refusal.