Respectful Insolence

“The Autism Myth Lives On”

It’s rare that the mainstream media gets it right about vaccines and autism, and when they do I feel obligated to point it out. Such is the case with Sam Wang’s article The Autism Myth Lives On. It’s well worth reading, even though it’s a couple of months old. (How I missed it when it first appeared, I don’t know.) Wang even nails some of the reasons why this myth persists:

Although her [Jenny McCarthy's] concept of evidence is flawed, I don’t blame her. The error highlights how our brains are wired to think. Like the authors of the 1998 study, she concluded that two events happening around the same time must be linked. They used the principle that coincidence implies a causal link. But there was no coincidence for her son: He was born in 2002, after thimerosal was removed from vaccines.

The problem is compounded by “source amnesia,” in which people are prone to remember a statement without recalling where they heard it or whether the source was reliable. Presidential candidate John McCain might have fallen prey to source amnesia when he repeated the vaccine-autism myth last month. Recollection is more likely when the “fact” fits previously held views; parents might already dislike vaccinations based on their kids’ reaction to shots. But when it comes to a complex issue such as autism, such errors of reasoning hinder us from distinguishing real causes from coincidences.

Actually, I do blame McCarthy, because she’s been told time and time again where she’s wrong, but it doesn’t sink in. After a certain point, it’s not just normal human cognitive quirks anymore. It’s willful ignorance, or, as I like to call it, the arrogance of ignorance.

Comments

  1. #1 Bryn
    June 26, 2008

    I don’t know if it’s willful ignorance or the arrogance of ignorance, but Ms. McCarthy certainly exhibits the behavior of an angry two-year-old. She sticks her forefingers firmly in her ears and loudly chants, “La-la-la-la! I can’t hear you!” Repeat ad infinitum.

  2. #2 Yoo
    June 26, 2008

    It probably helped that the writer of the article is a professor of biology and not a pure bred journalist.

  3. #3 ellazimm
    June 26, 2008

    Science aside I can’t bear the fact that she’s sucked up more jet fuel in the last few years trying to get us to “green” our vaccines than I’m likely to spend in my entire life.

    Idealism is a good thing until it calcifies in which case it should be put in the park and shat on by the pidgeons like every other statue.

  4. #4 Kate
    June 26, 2008

    I honestly believe Ms. McCarthy and other parents like her have a deep need to place blame because they feel their children are “damaged” or “broken” or “wrong”.

    It’s as though they can’t believe that they couldn’t possibly have a child that deviates one iota from their own idea of perfection. When a child arrives that doesn’t conform to their expectations, “someone” or “something” must take the blame.

    Instead of searching for ways to make their children’s lives happier and more fulfilled or finding ways to assist their child interact with a world that they do not understand the way you or I do, they search to place blame, all the while giving their children and the thousands upon thousands of other autistic children and their parents the message that they are an accident, a freak, a science experiment gone wrong… The message that they would have been “happy” if only this hadn’t happened. They send the message no one should look for any other root cause for autism, that no one with autism is “normal” or “born that way” or could possibly be a “real person” and have autism at the same time. (They were made that way by nasty evil Scientists, doncha know?)

    They try to cause parents unending guilt by blaming them for their child’s autism. (If you hadn’t vaccinated your child, they’d be “fine” or “normal”). They perpetuate a culture where the ideal is the only possible choice and all others are abhorrent and wrong.

    Ms. McCarthy and her “green our vaccines” crowd are no better than the ID crowd. They prey on the desperate, the troubled and those searching for help and answers. They twist the truth to suit their current talking points, and no evidence you present to them is ever accepted but only because the evidence contradicts their presupposed conclusion.

    She disgusts me. I hope one day she wakes up from her fairy-tale dream and has enough shame to apologize sincerely for the hurt and heartache she has caused her family, her child, and society as a whole.

  5. #5 Dangerous Bacon
    June 26, 2008

    I don’t think John McCain gets off the hook for spouting autism-vaccine myths on the basis of “source amnesia”. More likely it’s part of a deliberate attempt to attract the Ron Paul antivax they-don’t-want-you-to-know voting bloc.

  6. #6 The Christian Cynic
    June 26, 2008

    Kate, I agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve said, with one exception:

    They try to cause parents unending guilt by blaming them for their child’s autism. (If you hadn’t vaccinated your child, they’d be “fine” or “normal”). They perpetuate a culture where the ideal is the only possible choice and all others are abhorrent and wrong.

    But it’s not parents’ fault – parents are good and well-intentioned, you see – it’s all Big Pharma’s fault telling you that you’re a bad parent if you don’t vaccinate (and for the vast conspiracy, etc.).

    As a parent of a child who is non-verbal (although probably not on the spectrum – we’re trying to get a diagnosis at present), I definitely understand that parents have expectations of their children and some of these are even ones based on normal biological development, and there is a level of disappointment when those expectations aren’t met. But that doesn’t merit this sort of response, and it’s even more disappointing that parents (and worse, supposed medical professionals and other parties who should have greater ethical obligations) engage in this sort of behavior as a method of coping with it. (Why anyone who’s not as emotionally invested as parents, grandparents, etc. would do this is totally beyond me.)

  7. #7 Oldfart
    June 26, 2008

    I don’t understand the parents who “don’t like vaccination because my kids don’t like the shots.” When I was young, vaccination was a rite of childhood that everyone had to go through. I never heard a parent complain about the pain his/her child felt. I’m sure their were some but I never heard of them. Seems the modern view is that children should avoid pain at all costs for some reason as if pain were not a part of life. Such children grow up believing that beef, for instance, is made shrink-wrapped in the same kind of factory that makes cell phones.

  8. #8 Calli Arcale
    June 26, 2008

    I think the non-family-members who become anti-vax crusaders do it because it can be satisfying in a way to affiliate oneself with a cause. Why are vigilante superhero comic books and movies so popular? Clearly, something inside a lot of us finds it appealing to be a lone crusader fighting against the forces of darkness, using their superpowers (or remarkable insight, or privileged information) to champion the weak and the oppressed, giving hope and fighting for justice.

    Regarding good mainstream articles about vaccination, I was pleased to read one in the current issue of “Parents” magazine, a rather fluffy and often slightly wooey magazine (wooey in a fashionable sort of way rather than a rabid conspiracy-theorist kind of way). It’s not “Mothering”, thank goodness, but it grates enough that I won’t subscribe. I’m still not sure why they keep sending me free issues. Anyway. They had a very straightforward, fact-based article about why it’s important to get vaccinations. It even discussed the Hannah Poling case, why it does not say that vaccines cause autism, and that it is actually even more important to vaccinate children like her (since their abnormal metabolism is a ticking time bomb just waiting for a fever — and with vaccines, you have the opportunity to reduce the risk of fever by giving Tylenol or something similar before the shot). It was quite refreshing to read that article. It did mention the autism “controversy” but did not dignify it with much time or space, treating it as a fringe belief and not a genuine controversy.

  9. #9 RJ
    June 26, 2008

    After floating around between antivaccine and autism sites, I have observed a character type that seems to be common on them. They tend to be mothers who think that the world owes them something. I do not doubt they are frustrated or angry about their situation, but they are not just looking for answers…they are looking for someone to blame. It is an outside source that caused their problems. Furthermore, there is a profit motive behind it: big pharma. Their agenda is to rake in billions from vaccines that they have co-opted the government into mandating. Regardless if their “evidence” is anecdotal or circumstantial, it is unquestionable in their eyes. What is the word for people who by into conspiracies based on anecdotal and circumstantial “evidence”? Suckers!

    Then comes the lawyers. And the alternative care practitioners. We all know their intentions are noble. They feed on (literally) and manipulate the situation to exploit these people, these same people who feel like society owes them for their suffering. As a matter of point, posters on the AoA website got very angry when I suggested that a flight crew performed exactly as they are required to (by law) when an autistic child became unruly and disruptive on a flight and the plane was diverted to dropped them off. Literally, they were claiming that their child’s illness should supersede the law…that FAA guidelines and the (evil) airlines were all wrong. When I suggested that many people have adversity in their lives and that doesn’t entitle them to be above the law, all hell broke loose.

    The information age is here…and with it comes…the dis-information age. Google, which is little more than a glorified yellow pages, it redefining our sources of information. Most readers here know how to discriminate our sources. But unfortunately, our sources (such as journals) are not available to the public. They do not have access to the real stuff (abstracts will not cut it). Without solid, quality information we will continue to evolve into a two-tier society: those with access to good information and the suckers.

  10. #10 Patrick
    June 26, 2008

    I’m not getting a good feeling of credibility about JMac either.

    On a post a few days ago (The Cectic cartoon: scienceblogs.com/insolence/2008/06/if_celebrity_antivaccinationist_jenny_mc.php ) a commenter noted:

    web.archive.org/web/20061019001439/http://indigomoms.com/serv_prayer.html
    Jenny’s profit from the sale of the “quantum prayer wheel” were to go to schools that Jenny was going to build for indigo and crystal children! I wonder what she did with that money?

    I am fairly sure that we have heard about her lament over not having enough money to pay for treatments and having to approach support groups for her own case, written about in her whiny book.

    So I am in agreement with the commenters query. I wonder what really did happen with the money that was claimed to be for Crystal/Indigo schools.

    If I don’t find out somehow that it actually went into trust somewhere then she will have upped her qualification as a woo meister/sheister. No, I did not and will not purchase any of the books written by the antivax/woo/cam end of this issue. I do get reviews of most of the offbeat publications through the very capable blogosphere grapevine.

    But I can hold out hope that one of the other autism bloggers might be able to express the credibility concern with more complete discrepancy details than I have run into so far.

  11. #11 The Christian Cynic
    June 26, 2008

    Calli, I read that Parenting article as well (I think either someone subscribed for us or we also receive them free – my wife and I don’t read magazines, generally; I saw ‘autism’ on the cover and had to read it) and was also pleasantly surprised. It’s good to see information as opposed to misinformation in the media.

    I also think you’re probably right about non-involved parties who jump into the fray; that seems to fit at least a few people I’ve met.

  12. #12 HCN
    June 26, 2008

    The Christian Cynic said “As a parent of a child who is non-verbal (although probably not on the spectrum – we’re trying to get a diagnosis at present), I definitely understand that parents have expectations of their children and some of these are even ones based on normal biological development, and there is a level of disappointment when those expectations aren’t met.”

    Yep, been there, done that. Since both parents are engineers, I assumed my kid was going to be brilliant. I even played German language tapes to him when he was big enough to sit up in a high chair to eat.

    Then it turned out he could not speak his native language. His first form of communication was sign language.

    Definitely a lesson in humility.

    Though my younger kids benefitted to the point I put them in a play based preschool, never had them tested for the accelerated “gifted” school programs and anything they did was what they wanted to do (though all three got music lessons, only one has stuck to it)… from becoming a lifeguard, to taking summer classes at the community college in math and science to the youngest excelling at reading and art (and having multicolored hair!).

    By the way, the following book was a lifeline when my oldest was diagnosed with oral motor dyspraxia:
    http://www.amazon.com/Childhood-Speech-Language-Listening-Problems/dp/0471387533/ … there are some other more recent books, but I know that you should stay away, very far away from anything written by Thomas Sowell and Glenn Doman! (my younger son did have some late-talking dysphasia issues, but he did get speech and language services from both the school district and inexpensive therapy at the university’s speech and hearing clinic where they train speech therapists).

    Oh, and this is a charity we give money to (because oldest son got almost $30000 worth of therapy there for free!):
    http://www.scottishrite.org/what/phil/ritecare.html

  13. #13 Azkyroth
    June 27, 2008

    Idealism is a good thing until it calcifies in which case it should be put in the park and shat on by the pidgeons like every other statue.

    I am so stealing this. :3