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Evaluating Evidence >  Vaccines and Autism link:

It's e
asy to confuse correlation with causation

Last update: 01/11/2011

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 medical journal.

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.



  1. A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine-Autism Wars

    Researchers long ago rejected the theory that vaccines cause autism, yet
    many parents don't believe them. Can scientists bridge the gap between
    evidence and doubt?


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