Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On the Origin of Vaccine-Autism Fundamentalism, by Means of Unnatural Credulity -or- the Preservation of Ill-Favored Ideas in the Struggle for Reason

Last Thursday, a special federal court ruled in three test cases that the petitioners' autism did not result from the measles mumps rubella (MMR) vaccine. Finding that the petitioners' families had been "misled by physicians who are guilty . . . of gross medical misjudgment," the court denied compensation and decried the evidence for a vaccine-autism link as "bad science conducted to support litigation rather than to advance medical and scientific understanding.''

The decision's release on Charles Darwin's 200th birthday was fortuitous, the "vax/aut" crowd having not a little in common with the fundamentalists who so despise the father of evolutionary biology. Like fundamentalists, vax/aut proponents have become so invested in the truth of their particular idea that they ignore, rationalize, or attack as fraudulent any evidence to the contrary. Evidence in favor of their idea is distorted and endlessly repeated, and gaps in the evidence for alternative ideas are treated as further proof.

I suspect that fundamentalists' ire for Darwin goes beyond evolution, and stems as much from the approach to knowledge for which he stands. Setting out on the Beagle, Darwin held an idea common among 19th century Anglicans: that modern plants and animals descend from nearly identical ancestors created by God at the beginning of the world. But when Darwin's observations in the Galápagos suggested an alternative hypothesis, one that better fit the newly available evidence, he abandoned the old idea. This methodology for approaching ideas--evaluating them for explanatory success and then refining or discarding them in light of new facts--poses an existential threat to the entire project of fundamentalism.

The genesis of the vax/aut hypothesis was not in itself irrational. Certain forms of autism tend to manifest around the age at which most children receive MMR. And mercury, an ingredient in the vaccine preservative thimerosal, is known to cause neurological damage in vastly larger quantities.

But subsequent analysis has revealed the conclusions drawn from timing of onset to represent a simple post hoc fallacy. The incidence of autism turns out to be the same among children receiving vaccines with and without thimerosal, or receiving no vaccinations at all. And here is where the vax/aut enthusiasts show their fundamentalist stripes. Like the contrarians who insist the moon landing was faked and Snapple is sterilizing African-Americans, vax/aut types are unmoved by the evidence.

It's not that vax/aut believers aren't sympathetic--many are parents of autistic children and understandably yearn for any explanation of the otherwise inexplicable devastation wrought upon their families. Often they have been seduced by cure-peddling quacks and book-hawking celebrities.

But the vax/aut faithful provide red meat to the "anti-vax" movement: parents who refuse to vaccinate their children and think you shouldn't either. The obscenity of this movement's attack on perhaps the greatest public health achievement in history is stupefying. A campaign to reinstitute open sewers or ban refrigeration could scarcely threaten greater violence to the general well-being.

Tragically, anti-vaxers may be validating Darwin as we speak. More than survival or even reproduction, the traits most favored by natural selection are those that ensure an organism's offspring survive to reproduce. If credulity is a heritable trait, forgoing vaccination is an excellent way to boost the odds your children won't pass it on.


  1. i wonder if the vax/aut faithful will take the blame for causing widespread pandemics when their un-inoculated children grow up to travel the world as teens and adults and then cause the next viral outbreaks by being carriers for diseases that are preventable in the US and other industrialized societies but would wreak unimaginable havoc in third world nations. my guess is some chuckle-head's kid will be brain-washed into being a new-age missionary and causing the equivalent of the holocaust on some unsuspecting group of natives.

  2. already happening with that indian "hugging" woman.

  3. There doesn't seem to be good scientific studies on either side of the fence these days. The studies are designed to come to a specific conclusion. The CDC secretly funded that recent Italian study which has some major flaws. The CDC also follows the money of big business and the health of the general public comes after corporate profits.

    Why with all the advances in medicine do we still have no idea what causes food allergies? Vaccinations are the main cause of food allergies. There are trace amounts of food protein in the vaccines. This is a protected trade secret. Read the patents for culture mediums and vaccine adjuvants and the ingredients pretty much list every food known to man.

  4. The anti-vax movement is a pet peeve of mine, so I loved this post. However, I think your conclusion is wishful thinking. The problem for me with the anti-vax movement is that right now we have herd immunity for diseases such as polio. As the anti-vax movement grows, which it certainly will--it's huge among upper middle class New Yorkers for example--diseases will be reintroduced. I may not be vulnerable because I've had my shots, but growing numbers of seriously sick people put a strain on the system, which affects me and everybody else. Arghhh. So stupid!

  5. Greetings the vaccination is pretty important to treat this terrible sickness that flow in the air , we need to preserve the healthcare in the community.


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