Don't Let Facts Get in the Way...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Smitty's post about people warning Congress not to be distracted by "studies" reminded me of a fairly recent example of a similar event. There are people so entrenched in their beliefs that they refuse to accept anything else. A few weeks ago, Andrew Wakefield's study that linked vaccinations to autism was shown to be an outright fraud. As it was said in the article, there were plenty of warning sign and the research overwhelmingly showed that Wakefield was wrong. Despite this, there were an increasing number of parents that were buying into this and using it as the main reason for not getting a vaccine.

Over the course of my professional career, I have run into a number of parents that believed as Wakefield believed. Strangely enough, this was a very diverse group, from hippy, tree huggers, to super evangelical, conservative Christians. In some cases, these people were of the type that just didn't want to be bothered by doing the research and just heard it from someone they respected and let it go unchallenged. In other cases, these were very smart people, so I don't know why the believed what they believed. The author points out:

The most mindboggling aspect of this dangerous game of chicken is that it's being played by earnest, well-intended parents looking out for their children's best interests — in the face of dubious scientific data. After all, no other credible scientist or researcher could duplicate Wakefield's work over the past decade, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the Institute of Medicine and just about every other credible scientist working in the area of childhood diseases have all said in various ways that there's no discernable link between vaccinations and autism. No fewer than 14 studies involving millions of children in several countries have found no meaningful difference in autism rates among kids who were vaccinated and those who weren't. Remember, Wakefield's study involved only 12 kids.

And yet the anti-vaccination crowd pushed on, its traction already firmly established.

Why does this happen?


Jay 3:00 PM  

I have always been amazed by how prevalent the "vaccinations cause autism" associations are, even among (as you say) quite well-educated and otherwise, by all appearances, rather discerning individuals. I have two theories:

1) For many, Jenny McCarthy et al. are much more accessible and more believable voices than the scientific community, so many people simply never got the message that this study was so flawed.

2) Decisions regarding one's kids are so primal that they cut right through the vast majority of the "rational" programming that comes with being modern, information-rich humans.

Like most questions of this sort, the answer is probably a combination of these and a few other factors, but I would guess that these two account for most of it.

Smitty 3:00 PM  

I am guilty as anyone of the causes: laziness. A big media splash on a study (and the media is notorious for not understanding that in real grown-up science, 1 single study does not a rule make), and it sounds serious enough that people who don't otherwise know where to look for information will listen.

I am not saying it's the media's fault. The media is complicit only inasmuch as they don't dig deeper, like a lot of regular people, or they say things like "Opponents say NO but proponents say YES," thus lending equal credibility to both sides of a story where that credibility simply doesn't *actually* exist for one of the two sides.

So again the media is complicit, as much as I am sometimes. I have done and do much better at understanding credible sources of information and bodies of work versus individual results.

Less of a culprit (but still a notion that's in play) is that weird "I mistrust my doctor and the government" thing. I think it really means "I don't trust people in authority" and this weird notion that one single person can shake some commonly-held belief to its knees. Fierce individualism and all that crap. But that is psychobabble bullshit mostly. I think the real culprit is laziness. I heard it on the news and saw it on teh google, so it must be true.

steves 7:08 AM  

You both raise excellent points. I almost posted an addendum yesterday on Jay's second point. Parents do make decisions in a primal way and can be hypersensitive to harms and perceived harms when it comes to their kids.

The media does bear some of the blame, Smitty. Wakefield's small study got way more press than any of the other studies, so people didn't really get an accurate picture of the 'debate'.

That clip from Canadian TV was great. Penn and Teller did an episode of Bullshit where they looked at alternative medicine that was really funny. If you have Netflix, you can get it on their instant service.

Post a Comment


Potential Drunks

Search This Blog

  © Blogger template On The Road by 2009

Back to TOP