On our local news, just after the piece, the station
interviewed a mom who refuses to believe that the study showing
that vaccines cause autism could be wrong.
Her argument? Why did so many parents see the same thing? Our
children receiving vaccines, and the onset of autism in our
children shortly afterwards.
So is this a valid argument? How would you explain the limits of
her observation? ~ Karl
Tony L. Hines writes:
A couple of factors, I think. First, it's easy
to confuse correlation with causation. Often, autism isn't able
to be diagnosed until 12-18 months of age...which is when the
MMR vaccine is administered. So there's a correlation between
the two, because they both happen at roughly the same age, which
makes it easy to make the leap that one causes the other: "Hey,
my child didn't start showing signs of autism until he got that
vaccine a few months ago." The signs of autism, and resulting
diagnosis, get tied to the vaccine--even though the truth is
that signs of autism don't show up until that age regardless.
Therefore, it becomes hard for people to let go of this notion:
they've seen the relationship with their own eyes, which carries
more weight with them than doctors crunching numbers in a
On top of that, on very personal matters such as the health of
our children, I think it's easier and somehow more comforting to
latch onto external factors as causes of problems. Something
about "an MMR vaccine caused my child's autism" seems easier
than "a genetic abnormality caused my child's autism." Genetic
defects are random, and that's scary because it's totally out of
our control. On top of that, genetic defects are personal,
because they are tied to our own bodies...and so random defects
springing from our own physical characteristics are personal,
and scary. Attaching blame to external factors--evil pharma
corporations angling for world domination--is much easier and
more comforting. When the woman interviewed is again confronted
with the reality that her son's autism may be random and
personal, it's hard to let go of that thought.
Finally, let's face it: this is one of the classic conspiracy
theories. Big pharma = world domination. The attraction of any
conspiracy theory is: the more someone presents evidence against
the theory, the more the theorists can say "This is more
evidence the conspiracy is true. The conspirators are doing
everything they can to disprove the theory; why would they try
so hard if it weren't true in the first place?"
I'm not saying the woman is unreasonable, or consciously
thinking in those terms. But I am saying that many of our
thoughts and decisions--maybe even most of our thoughts and
decisions--are affected far more by emotion and hidden
factors/triggers than they are by logic.
We're all guilty of it, in different areas of our lives. I think
most of us, after diagnosis, went through a period of "What
caused this?" We wanted answers about what may have caused
lymphoma. So we read about fertilizer. And we read about hair
coloring products. And we read about Epstein-Barr virus. And we
read about benzine. Something inside us wanted an explanation
about what caused our bodies to turn against us. "We don't know
what caused this" is an unacceptable answer for the human
imagination, and this is a great thing. That need to describe,
explain and solve everything is what has led to every
advancement in civilization.
From an emotional standpoint, however, "We don't know what
caused this" pretty much sucks.
A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine-Autism
Researchers long ago rejected the theory that vaccines cause
many parents don't believe them. Can scientists bridge the gap
evidence and doubt?