Autism, Vaccines, and My Beef With (Some) Scientists

I love science so I subscribe to Scientific American.  It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking, extraordinary read which usually fills me with a lot of hope for the future.  So I look forward to it every month.

However, in the latest issue of Scientific American, Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote an article entitled Trust Me, I’m a Scientist where, after referencing the current storm raging around vaccines and autism, he ponders why-oh-why “so many people choose not to believe what scientists say.”   He goes on to posit two possible explanations:

1)  The ever-popular (and sadly accurate) speculation about the poor quality of science education in the U.S. which he downplays, and then his own theory;

2)  People are emotionally prone to accept inaccurate beliefs, a position he argues for during the rest of the article.  (He is a psychologist.)

Needless to say the dreaded “I” word eventually surfaced…IRRATIONAL…the one which, however true as a strict definition, scientists also use for character assassination against someone coming from a non-scientific perspective.

And as usual, as soon as I read the word my blood pressure shot up about twenty points and I had to put the magazine down while I struggled to calm the bristling, snapping, fiercely irrational dog in me that scientists keep poking through the fence with these fucking  sticks.  I don’t think they understand how patronizing it feels–or how counterproductive it is–when they airily reduce and dismiss the rich, complex, nourishing, ancient and essential emotional/instinctual lives we all share as irrational.   They might as well just call us naked, dirty, jungle people who eat with their spears.

image from Wikipedia

I mean, really.  It’s so much harder to help people once you’ve antagonized them.

Now just so we’re clear here, I don’t for one second doubt the sincerity of the brilliant, decent, dedicated scientists who are working to find causes and cures for autism.   I, personally, am really grateful they’re trying and I believe them when they say please, please, please people, we’ve looked long and hard, and we really and truly cannot find a link between autism and vaccines.  It sounds to me like they mean it and so I weight that information accordingly.

But on the other hand, not finding a link and proving there is no link are two completely different things.  The first finding leaves wiggle room and your average parent’s instincts are likely to sniff that out and mistrust it.  Instincts don’t like uncertainty.  For them uncertainty is like a patch of tall grass where predators could still be hiding, even though the scientists periodically go in and beat the brush.  It’s nothing personal against scientists, it’s just that…well…it’s tall grass.

So, a possible suggestion for scientists here:  Acknowledge that wiggle room is wiggle room, and try not to patronize a parent who knows it and is already growling and circling their child.  If you do they’re not going to listen to you and it won’t be because you’re a scientist.

And a possible suggestion to parents who are thinking of not vaccinating their children at all:  Please don’t get so focused on this one patch of tall grass that you completely forget about the other tall patches behind you.  A few of those ones definitely harbor predators and you need to have some kind of plan in place for fighting them off, too.  Whooping cough, diptheria, polio, etc. are all still crouching nearby, eying your child and lashing their tails.  And even if their populations are relatively low right now, low is not the same as extinct.  Low means they could still breed their way into a comeback given the chance so, whatever plan of action you eventually settle on, be sure you build some kind of defense strategy that protects your child (and the adult they eventually become) against these other diseases, too.  While they may seem less familiar today than autism, they’re certainly not less dangerous.

I once helped care for a woman who lived for over fifty years with the personal devastation caused by one of the last, major polio outbreaks in this country.  She was quadriplegic and still, over a half-century later, in constant, low grade pain.  The stories she told me of “how it used to be before the vaccine was discovered” made my hair stand on end, and through her eyes I finally got the chance to see what an absolute horror the scourge of polio really, really, was, and what a blessing the polio vaccine has been for all of us born after it’s discovery.   She thanked God everyday for that vaccine, and for the fact that her grandchildren would never have to endure what she did.

Vaccines are not an evil.  To the contrary, they’re a miracle and a gift.  But they’re also not without risks which means, miracle or no, they still need to be utilized carefully and wisely.

So back to Dr. Willingham’s question about why “so many people choose not to believe what scientists say…”  (Man, there are just so many things wrong with that question.  Like…what?  Scientists own the ultimate truth and we’re all somehow obligated to believe everything they tell us?  Or that there’s something wrong (irrational!) with us non-scientists if we question their conclusions?  Boy howdy, that phrasing smacks of an arrogance that’s totally setting my inner dog off again.  Damn.)   Frankly, I think his conclusion that “people are emotionally prone to accept inaccurate beliefs” (another phrase brimming with innuendo) borders on being dismissive and condescending.  

I know this much; people are definitely emotionally prone to mistrust those who disrespect them.  And as long as skeptical parents feel that scientists like Dr. Willingham are talking down to them, I just don’t see them becoming a lot more receptive to the science itself.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011