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The power of an anecdote

April 27, 2010

Thanks to college finals, raiding has slowed down a bit. This gave me a chance to watch a Frontline special on the vaccination/autism ‘controversy.’ (another episode of It Came from Pharyngula.) I have to put this in quotes, because the contrast between scientific study and internet bullshit couldn’t be clearer. Watching the anti-vax activists’ interviews in this program spells out the problem: anecdotal evidence. The personal story. The internet video that spreads…well, like a virus. No vaccine for that eh?

So, my child gets vaccine shots -> my child gets diagnosed with autism -> vaccines caused it? Feh. If I eat a Snickers bar and then get hit by a car, do Snickers bars cause car accidents?

Even more damning, I thought, was the point that these diagnoses of autism tend to take place around the time of some vaccinations, because that’s when a child’s development or lack thereof can begin to show it. Oh, but it couldn’t just happen, something did it to them!

It would be one thing if the scientific community didn’t own up to the probabilities of side effects, both mild and severe; not that the severe side effects are that prevalent, or outweigh the benefits. It would be interesting if the supposed causes, like the MMR vaccine or mercury or thimerosal, weren’t studied extensively looking for just the sort of causal relationships that the anti-vax activists have pointed to.

Fortunately, this program seems to catch them dead to rights here. We have the interviews complaining about particular vaccines and ingredients; we have the scientific studies shooting these theories down; and when we go back to the anti-vaxers, we have them moving the goalposts. Oh, what are you studying that for? (because you suggested it!) You should be studying this instead. They toss in an appeal to emotion for good measure — parents are asserting their freedom, don’t need no doctors telling them what to do. Bastards. How dare these people advise them on aspects of modern medicine that take, um…most of a decade and a small fortune to learn.

It is interesting, though, to see what happens when the memory of these diseases passes from the population. All the complainers seem to be young. A lot of them are having kids younger than me by 10,20 years or more. And I have no memory of these things. Where’s the fire, they seem to ask. Nobody catches this stuff anymore. Well, until some kid comes back to the country from abroad and brings bugs back with them that we’ve eradicated here, and then kids start to get sick and some die.

Well, it’s PBS, they’re ever so non-confrontational. Nobody asks Jenny McCarthy what she thinks about that.

Ah well. I’ll never be a parent, but as regards skepticism I know how people want to find causes for things — find purpose and meaning to things, especially when something bad happens to them. It would seem very difficult to just accept something like autism and not try to find some greater cause and go on a crusade to fix it. Something to blame. Their concern is not entirely useless; they can help to drive change for the better in medicine. But in refusing such medicine outright, and endangering not only their kids but other people’s kids, they end up looking downright irresponsible.

If you need any further examples of the anecdote in full swing, check the comments on the linked Frontline webpage. The crusade is on.

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