In 2010, the British Medical Journal retracted a study that linked the measels-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination to autism and its author, Andrew Wakefield, lost his license to practice medicine. This is perhaps the most salient point to keep in mind for now.
The original study, published in 1998, caught on like wildfire – with celebrity moms towing the bandwagon that millions of mothers in the United States boarded. Interestingly, this study was published the same year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report – Recommendation and Reports announcing that since the licensing of the MMR vaccine, reported cases had decreased by more than 99%.
In 2004, California biomedical engineer, Brian Hooker, and CDC health scientist, William Thompson, published a study in Pediatrics concluding no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Thompson came forward later stating that the researchers omitted data that would have indeed shown there was a link. Thompson reports that the omitted data suggested that African American males receiving the MMR before age 36 months are at increased risk for autism. Hooker, the lead author, then conducted a re-analysis of the study retrieving the omitted data, adding it, and then running his own calculations. Hooker, who serves on the board of Focus Autism, admits a bias because of an autistic son he believes was “vaccine-injured.” Hooker recovered the missing or omitted data from school records, and concluded the increased risk in black boys, and published his findings in Translational Neurodegeneration. The re-analysis, however, was lambasted by experts as significantly flawed at multiple fundamental levels. This study, like the 1998 study, was pulled by the publisher, stating serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions and a potential conflict of interest bias, and then an official retraction printed about a month later following a post-publication peer review of the methods and statistical analysis. Hooker’s retracted study nonetheless went viral and the vaccination-autism bandwagon filled up once again, with the help of outlets like CNN and You Tube. Ugh.
But I’m actually not here to discuss the evils or blessings of vaccinating children (though my opinion on the matter becomes obvious). The salient point, and GOOD data over the last nearly 20 years that has consistently refuted any link between vaccines and autism, lend themselves to this… Even in the face of such overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence that has debunked the connection between MMR and autism over and over again, even with premier autism research and advocacy organizations like Autism Speaks urging parents to vaccinate their children, parents still hold fast to the idea, and even continue to perpetuate the notion, that vaccinations in general – not just the MMR – cause autism. Or injury. Or death.
I think the death argument is easy enough. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), measles kills 140,000 people annually worldwide. The vaccine saves one million lives. Just 57 claims of death related to the measles vaccine have ever been made, and it is unpublished how many of those claims were allowed. A claim does not mean a conclusion.
The injury argument is simply this: medications, including vaccinations, can and do produce side effects. Though if the benefits are heavily outweighing the risks, occasional side effects are (and should be) deemed acceptable. [For an extremely alternative view on this matter, which is not my view and never will be, but warrants being presented as the alternative argument, see the many articles at www.vaccinationcouncil.org. Viera Scheibner, 2013, writes particularly about measles vaccines.]
On causing autism, though, I don’t think it’s for lack of education or proof that people persist in this belief. I think it’s an alternative psychological phenomenon. Why DO we insist our beliefs are sound and accurate, even when it’s clearly demonstrable they are not? Because sometimes the obliteration of something one believes in makes them even more certain of their belief. That according to famed psychologist, Leon Festinger, of Stanford University as far back as the mid-1950s. Festinger wrote, “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
His point was that people are unable to reason without emotion. Reasoning is not “sound” until the person accepts the given information and is comfortable with it, no matter how strong the science behind it. If the science is threatening to our beliefs, we push the information away. If information is considered friendly, of interest or comfort to us, or aligning with our existing beliefs, then we pull it close. Feelings arise much faster than thoughts, are far less fleeting that thoughts generally, and therefore positive or negative determinations about people, things, ideas, even data are made well before the matter is given consideration. It’s emotional bias. We’re all familiar with the term.
Those with staunch beliefs that have a negative emotional response to new information will expend tremendous energy trying to refute alternative views and any argument inconsistent with their beliefs. The energy takes on new form and becomes a mechanism for protecting their sense of self, their identity that gives rise to their dignity; the ego (Freud) is called into action, and the ego is nothing if not consistent and persistent. The ego is so consistent that it makes holding two contradictory beliefs impossible. It creates a state of uncomfortable tension called cognitive dissonance (also Festinger), and the only relief is to alter or abandon one of the beliefs. Bottom line – we seek harmony over accuracy in our beliefs. The ego is so persistent that it will give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior, such as going to great lengths to explain away evidence that is prima facie to anybody else.
I’m afraid that when it comes to subject matter that has people so passionately polarized, science will simply never be enough. At least not immediately. Wakefield himself maintains his beliefs, as well as his prominence in the anti-vaccine community, despite losing his medical license and being labeled “an elaborate fraud.” Hooker, the same.
Clearly, science must be actively transported across our emotional membranes. And this becomes the new salient point.
At the end of the day, however, another possibility exists that is not such a physiological phenomenon… That it’s merely the human condition. And the human condition brings forward these simple concepts – 1) that information is not meaningful to someone who is not interested; or 2) we just have a deep love affair with being intensely oppositional. 😉
NEXT… Human instinct and intuition.