Will the Vaccine-Autism Saga Finally End?

By Chris Mooney | February 3, 2010 10:40 am

My latest Science Progress blog post riffs on the news about Andrew Wakefield and the Lancet yesterday. In case you didn’t hear:

The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, has now gone to the extreme of fully retracting a notorious 1998 paper by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues, purporting to show a shocking new cause of autism—the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. Wakefield and his team studied digestion in 12 children with various types of behavioral disorders, nine of whom were autistic, and found inflammation in the intestines. The vaccine was blamed for letting toxins loose into the bloodstream, which not only caused the intestinal problems but, it was conjectured, then also affected the children’s brains.

The 1998 paper hit the British public like a thunderclap, triggering a decline in use of the MMR vaccine as well as a resurgence of the measles. It was the opening shot in the vaccine-autism controversy that still rages today (albeit in varied forms, not all of which still focus on the MMR vaccine). But the credibility of Wakefield’s work has since taken a steady stream of hits, culminating in this last devastating blow.

The post then goes on to relate the whole Wakefield story, and to extrapolate: Now that we know this study has been pretty much totally discredited, whence the vaccine-autism controversy, which the study kicked off back in 1998? Shouldn’t it, too, go away?

Sadly, I’m not optimistic about that happening. You can read why here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Unscientific America, vaccination

Comments (18)

  1. Well Chris:

    The post then goes on to relate the whole Wakefield story, and to extrapolate: Now that we know this study has been pretty much totally discredited, whence the vaccine-autism controversy, which the study kicked off back in 1998? Shouldn’t it, too, go away?

    Given how many of the erroneous climate papers are still cited by the global climate crisis opponents, I’d sy no, this won’t make the issue go away. Remember, the linkage of vaccines and autism has never really been a science question for many folks – its been an emotional and/or blame placing question.

  2. Gee now “science” can get back to finding out what causes autism disorders and ways to treat and cure them.

    Oh wait, “science never did that did it? When it comes to autism cause and cure “science” long ago abandoned the field.

  3. Busiturtle

    Harold,

    Science did indeed find a cure for autism. It is called pre-natal testing.

    You know the same cure for autism could be applied to all maladies although I suspect those with a voice would dissent to the prescription.

  4. Marion Delgado

    Harold, your preferred discipline, scare quotes, has never cured anything.

  5. Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything. We need to encourage moderation, and break down a polarized situation in which the anti-vaccine crowd essentially rejects modern medical research based on the equivalent of conspiracy theory thinking, even as mainstream doctors just shake their heads at these advocates’ scientific cluelessness.

    What makes you think scientists and physicians haven’t tried to build bridges? They have, on numerous occasions. For instance, they allowed Sallie Bernard to have major input on a study from 2007 looking at thimerosal containing vaccines and neurodevelopmental outcomes. When the study found no link (rather, it found a random bit of noise where vaccines appeared to decrease some measures and increase others, all at a frequency expected by random chance), Sallie Bernard withdrew her name from the paper and attacked it after its publication. The government has even placed prominent anti-vaccine activists Lynn Redwood (of SafeMinds) and Lee Grossman (of NAA) on the panel, and they have done nothing but try to coopt the committee to support their antivaccine agenda. Mark Blaxill also attends the meetings and has done the same thing. I can list other examples of attempts to “build bridges” with antivaxers that have ended in abject failure because antivaxers won’t budge. They don’t want bridges. They want victory.

    So, “building bridges” is all well and nice, but how–specifically–do you propose to do it in a way different than what has already been tried and failed miserably on multiple prior occasions?

  6. Jason

    Well, there’s a serious hole in the retraction statement for the anti-vaccination movement: “…the Panel wish to make it clear that this case is not concerned with whether there is or might be any link between the MMR vaccination and autism.”

  7. Still beating the accommodation drum, I see. And Orac defended you when you went up against PZ.

    It is fascinating how you ignore previous efforts to work with opposing groups, and then claim that working with opposing groups will solve the problem…or are you just speaking from ignorance, and didn’t bother to actually look into the field you are talking about. It strikes me that you might have spoken with some of the people on the forefront of this discussion, Orac for instance, before sticking your nose into the middle things.

  8. Peter Beattie

    » Chris Mooney:
    Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement.

    Well, that’s science. “And science is one cold-hearted bitch with a 14-inch strap-on!” What are you going to do?

    And I mean that entirely seriously. What are you going to do?

    We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything.

    Really? Anything? That’s all you’ve got? After writing a whole book on scientific literacy and how to improve it you have no idea what the basics even might look like that one would have to agree on?

    And you must have noticed that the denialists (of whatever stripe) look for all the world as though they’re determined to push through their point of view, no matter what. If that is so, then they will not agree on anything that isn’t exactly that point of view. What do we do then?

  9. Lindsay

    I published this comment on Orac’s post about this article, but I think it would be good here too!

    Communication with people who are on the edge of this group is a really interesting and important problem that should be taken very seriously. As Orac pointed out, it does closely mimic the evolution-creation problem, with a large group of people on the fence over the issues. Obviously, it is pointless to try to convince the converted, but what should you do with those undecided?

    There was a great article in Nature about communicating with people in a different social group: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7279/full/463296a.html (might be behind paywall, sorry!) It says that you are more likely to hold the same beliefs as other members of your social group, regardless of the evidence or science behind one position or the other. In other words, they accept whatever position “reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments.” It references primarily the divide between global warming acceptance vs. deniers and giving HPV vaccine to schoolgirls.

    So it seems like the anti-vaxxers have a substantial advantage, not only because they use emotional arguments to convince parents, but also because they are most likely in the same social groups as these parents.

    Some suggestions that the authors make are 1) presenting arguments and evidence in a way that “affirms rather than threatens peoples’ values.” 2) Make sure evidence is vouched for by several, diverse experts.

    I think the suggestions are excellent, easy, and good to keep in mind when communicating facts surrounding intensely emotional issues.

    Full citation: Kahan, D. Fixing the communications failure. Nature 463, 296-297 (21 January 2010).

  10. Estragon

    I completely agree with the suggestion Chris made that we should be building bridges with the anti-vaccination movement. I would qualify this by saying that we should perhaps reach out to the more moderate anti-vaccination leaders who are simply trying to ensure safer vaccines – or as they put it – “green our vaccines”.
    Moderation, as an approach to scientific outreach, must always be the correct solution and I’m glad we have an advocate like Chris to emphasize this point. Fundamentalist pro-vaccination promoters, like Orac, cause the more moderate members of the public to reject science in favor of viewpoints of the opposite extreme. Perhaps it is time for the more strident pro-vaccine advocates to take a back seat in the public debate and let the moderates, like Chris, become the public face of science.

  11. Matti K.

    Since we are at it, why not build bridges towards those people who deny AGW?

    After all, isn’t accommodationism the silver bullet when resolving politicized disputes regarding scientific matters?

  12. bilbo

    Lindsay:

    Communication with people who are on the edge of this group is a really interesting and important problem that should be taken very seriously. As Orac pointed out, it does closely mimic the evolution-creation problem, with a large group of people on the fence over the issues. Obviously, it is pointless to try to convince the converted, but what should you do with those undecided?

    Atagahi has a great post up here which says exactly what you do, almost verbatim. If you’ll check out the comment I posted over there, though, I think you’ll find that the intentions I see are a bit more sinister.

  13. bilbo

    Ah, bollocks! Let me try again. The link is here: here

  14. gillt

    First, a “green” vaccine is not a difference.

    Mooney: “We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything.”

    Ah yes, some of that concrete and useful advice we’re all so used to around here.

  15. Lindsay

    Cool! Thanks bilbo!

  16. My opinion as a father of two one with ASD (5yr old boy),

    Emotional entanglement
    There is a tug of war between popular (anecdotal) and factual (research) evidence. Poplarity is from parents with (quite rightly) emotional attachment for the well being of their child. Compounding the anecdotal evidence is the reduction of trust with medical practioners. Therefore anti-trust and decline in MMR, and possibly other, vaccinations.

    My Take
    I have an open mind. I’m learning, understanding and accepting my childs autism (ASD). I have evidence on video which I can link (with minmal effort) to autism, but I can also link autism though my work in my family tree – therefore indicating genetic disorder.

    My point, there a sectrum of symptoms hence the label and the cure will match the complexity of the symtoms, meaning time cost and a build in GP trust.

    Best wishes for those living and working with Autism

  17. forbvea

    It’s more important for people to be aware of the FRAUD and deception that has infiltrated the autism community. As in Ari Ne’eman, who is Aspergers( diagnosed in 2000 not as a child of course), and switches back and forth between the terms, as if interchangable. Then there’s the notorious Amanda Baggs (google amanda baggs controversy), a woman who took copious amounts of LSD and suffers with “factitious disorder” or “psychogenic autism”. Would make a nice TV movie of the week, actually. Then you have an old time pro at posing as autistic: the ever popular bless her heart, who really does believe she is autistic: Donna Williams, who herself admits in her book, “nobody nowhere,” she had a multiple personality disorder. So, she’s not autistic either so say many experts. Apparently, this hasn’t hit the American Psychiatry seminars, as they are totally oblivous to the factitious disorder epidemic inside the autism community. You’d think they’d get it, being shrinks and all, but I guess they forgot about groupthink, mass hysteria, etc…and that Hollywood has given all sorts of mentally imbalanced folks who need attention, a deep desire to cling to the autism diagnosis so they can get into newspapers and on CNN to tell their fake autism story. This is truly funny. It should be on the Saturday Night Live specials..everyone and their grandma now is autistic. Like it’s popular. Fun. Jump on board. Let’s ride the autism train. If you were really dealing with autism you would never ever be thinking about autism pride or activist movements. You also wouldn’t be hacking into the Pentagon files, you closet sociopath. Nor would you have shot up Virginia Tech, Cho the nutcake the misinformed media said was autistic! Get real you autism frauds! You aren’t autistic and you give the public a fake face of autism. We know you are con artists. Get some Haldol. People who are really dealing with real autism are fed up with ya all.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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