That is indeed the title of a 1988 book by French historian Paul Veyne. He writes in his Introduction:
Did the Greeks believe in their mythology? The answer is difficult, for “believe” means so many things. Not everyone believed that Minos, after his death, continued being a judge in Hell or that Theseus fought the MInotaur, and they knew that poets “lie.” However, their way of not believing these things is disturbing to us. For in the minds of the Greeks, Theseus had, nonetheless, existed. It was necessary only to “purify Myth by Reason” and refine the biography of Hercles’ companion to its historic nugget…… The purification of myth by logos is not another episode in the eternal struggle between superstition and reason, dating from earliest times to the days of Voltaire and Renan, which would bring glory to the Greek spirit. Despite Nestle, myth and logos are not opposites, like truth and error.
The belief that vaccines or something in vaccines can be linked to autism has been called a myth” of autism. The question gets asked again and again (most recently by Orac in his post about framing and the “‘empathy’ gambit”): Why, in the face of clearly stated, well-supported evidence do people continue to believe that vaccines or mercury or, more recently, aluminum can “cause” autism? Why do people just keep on believing that there “must be a connection,” when the evidence that they keep demanding is handed to them and painstakingly explained?
Dr. Paul Offit touches on some answers to these questions in chapter 10, “Science and Society,” of Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. One of the epigraphs to his book points to the religious undertone of belief among antivaccinationists; this is the epigraph, a quotation from Thomas Szasz:
When religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine. Now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic.
It’s a provocative statement though perhaps—as Orac wrote in his first post about Dr. Offit’s book—not entirely accurate:
Actually, I would quibble about whether religion is actually weak these days. In this country, at least, fundamentalist religion, in particular fundamentalist Christianity, seems stronger than ever, permeating society so thoroughly that it is unthinkable that an atheist President will be elected in my lifetime. Elsewhere, fundamentalist Islam and other religions hold sway. Later in the book Dr. Offit makes the connection between religion and the antivaccine movement, which strikes me as a bit incongruous with this quote. However, the quote does characterize quite succinctly that what we are dealing with in the antivaccine movement is not science. Rather it is more akin to religion, because scientific evidence exonerating vaccines as a cause of autism rarely changes the minds of adherents to the antivaccine faith.
In his book, Dr. Offit points to a religious fervor behind the language of many antivaccinationists and to the zeal they devote to their cause, in the face of science and reason. An egregious example of this devotion is Generation Rescue, whose very name has religious overtones.
In Generation Rescue, Parent “Rescue Angels” are on a “mission” to “rescue” and “save” their children from the dread contagion of autism. The stated “mission” of Generation Rescue is “to discover and share the truth with families about the potential cause of their child’s NDs[ [neurological disorders]. And consider this statement form their website about biomedical treatments:
Biomedical intervention for NDs is based on the belief [my emphasis] that the psychological symptoms of NDs are a product of the physical issues the child is experiencing and that addressing the physical issues will lead to an improvement in those psychological symptoms.
It’s the “belief” of the band of Rescue Angels that something in the environment is the reason for what are called the “psychological symptoms of NDs” (the Generation Rescue website tries very hard not to use the word “autism”). “Belief” is what drives those who’ve drunk the anti-vaccine Kool-aid and joined the cult.
This sort of fervor is one reason that all the scientific studies in the world are not going to convince the “rabid,” dyed-in-the-wool antivaccinationists. But it’s not only those diehard “Rescue Angels” who are having some sort of effect, as suggested by the media’s and even our culture’s continued preoccupation with a supposed vaccine-autism link. Go to parent websites—especially websites for young children, such as Babble—and you’ll find agonized discussion about whether or not to vaccinate, and are vaccines “safe.”
Antivaccine beliefs are as “powerful as a religious conviction,” as Dr. Offit writes in Autism’s False Prophets (p. 212). He discusses Andrew Wakefield (“for [whom], the question of whether MMR caused autism had moved into the realm of faith,” p. 212) and the Reverend Lisa Sykes, an associate pastor at the Welborne United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia, who believes her son’s autism was caused by thimerosal in vaccines and whose “judicial advocacy crusade” against vaccines and their manufacturers has been documented by Kathleen Seidel on Neurodiversity. But there’s another voice of religious conviction among the antivaccinationists who provides the second epigraph for Dr. Offit’s book. That epigraph is:
I [started] Evan on vitaming B12 shots twice a week, and I was honestly blown away by what I saw. His speech doubled on the days I gave him the shots.
–Jenny McCarthy, on curing her son’s autism
In her first autism book published in September of 2007, Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism, McCarthy described herself as praying to all manner of saints (including Kateri Tekakwitha) on learning of Evan’s diagnosis. In her latest recent round of media appearances in conjunction with the publication of her book on “mother warriors,” McCarthy has been saying that she talked to God:
When Evan was first diagnosed, Jenny says he stopped speaking and began ignoring the world around him. As with most autistic children, she says Evan’s personality seemed to be locked inside him–and she was determined to help him break through. “I made a pact with God the day Evan got his autism diagnosis,” she says. “I said, ‘God, show me the way to heal my boy, and I will teach the world how I did it.'”
Jenny McCarthy, former Playboy Playmate, has undergone a conversion—-a religious experience—in the effort to “heal” her child from autism and (following her words above, said on Oprah earlier this month). She has, accordingly, been given (I’m following what I gather to be her logic in her above statement) a “mission” of “teach[ing] the world” and thus takes her place beside Andrew Wakefield, Lisa Sykes, and a whole host of others as the false prophets of autism.
And the falsity of McCarthy’s message is all too apparent. A year ago, when her first autism book appeared, McCarthy described her son as “recovered” from autism. More recently, her son has been described as in an “autism battle“; he has been simply described as “autistic.” Is it possible that McCarthy has (I’m just going, again, by her words) tricked herself about the “recovery” of her child from autism?
Or maybe she knows full well what is and what isn’t and is simply saying what the moment calls for: Back in May 2007, in discussing her soon-to-appear book, Louder Than Words, McCarthy did not say a word about autism or vaccines, and talked about crystals and indigo children.
Dr. Offit’s title for his book—-Autism’s False Prophets—is only too fitting. The pages in chapter 10 in which he describes the “religious conviction” about a vaccines-autism in Andrew Wakefield and Lisa Sykes are just the start and I think, given the mention of religion and science, of magic and medicine, more extensive discussion of this topic could shed some light on the fervor with which antivaccinationists cling to their hypotheses, and because of which the public is preoccupied with vaccines and autism, rather than issues like school programs and schools for autistic children.
But from the looks of it, the cult of the antivaccinationists and their false prophets have been hard at work spreading their creed and it would be well of them to look beyond the tenets of their faith and see how thoroughly they’ve mixed up medicine and magic, myth and science, in a biomed elixir.
Image courtesy of t-dot-s-dot.