Fright Doctors – The Vaccine-Autism Controversy

My essay on the vaccine-autism controversy came out today in Democracy. If you don’t read Democracy, you should. The list of luminaries on the masthead is quite impressive. I’m grateful to Michael Tomasky and Elbert Ventura for the opportunity to publish in such a terrific place, and for the careful editing.

I’m quite concerned about the vaccine-autism controversy. First, increasing numbers of Americans are choosing not to vaccinate their kids, thus increasing our collective vulnerability to infectious diseases. (See here for just one example).

Public willingness to accept harmful and groundless theories is equally worrisome. Everyone in the media and the blogosphere need to be careful about spreading claims, however widely and sincerely held, that lack proper scientific support. I think it’s fair to say that we progressives are quick to recognize the danger when the topic is creationism or denial of global warming. We are sometimes slower to recognize, or to call out, other ungrounded thinking closer to home, such as when the normally sound instinct to distrust corporate power and embrace parental autonomy lapses into a closed-minded rejection of the public-health enterprise.

Those of us who care for the disabled have special obligations. Because of our responsibilities and our experiences, we are granted a platform to influence people. Equally important, we influence each other. When caregivers–Jenny McCarthy, for example–use this platform poorly, the results are rather frightening.

At the same time, my own profession needs to ask some hard questions about why hundreds of thousands of people choose to believe such things, in conscious opposition to the consensus of the medical and scientific community. The very crudity of the anti-vaccine movement makes it easy to dismiss populist distrust of medical authority as simple boobishness. Sometimes it is; sometimes not.

Unfounded rumors about vaccines are being debunked. Leading figures who spread these rumors, such as Andrew Wakefield, have been punished. These are good things. Yet as long as families and patients have real experiences which lead them to distrust the medical and public health enterprise, some new appealing and dangerous forms of magical thinking are bound to pop up. That remains a sobering lesson of this sad bit of medical history.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.