July 1, 2007


True Believers: Why there's no dispelling the myth that vaccines cause autism. (Arthur Allen, June 29, 2007, Slate)

People who study irrational beliefs have a variety of ways of explaining why we cling to them. In rational choice theory, what appear to be crazy choices are actually rational, in that they maximize an individual's benefit—or at least make him or her feel good.

Blaming vaccines can promise benefits. Victory in a lawsuit is an obvious one, especially for middle-class parents struggling to care for and educate their unruly and unresponsive kids. Another apparent benefit is the notion, espoused by a network of alternative-medical practitioners and supplement pushers, that if vaccines are the cause, the damage can be repaired, the child made whole. In the homes of autistic children it is not unusual to find cabinets filled with 40 different vitamins and supplements, along with casein-free, gluten-free foods, antibiotics, and other drugs and potions. Each is designed to fix an aspect of the "damage" that vaccines or other "toxins" caused.

"Hope is a powerful drug," says Jim Laidler, a Portland scientist and father of two autistic boys who jumped ship from the vaccine conspiracy a few years ago. In reality, autism has no cure, nor even a clearly defined cause. Science takes its time and often provides no definitive answers. That isn't medicine that's easy to swallow.

Another explanation for the refusal to face facts is what cognitive scientists call confirmation bias. Years ago, when writing an article for the Washington Post Magazine about the Tailwind affair, a screwy piece of journalism about a nonexistent attack on American POWs with sarin gas, I concluded that the story's CNN producers had become wedded to the thesis after interviewing a few unreliable sources. After that, they unconsciously discounted any facts that interfered with their juicy story. They weren't lying—except, perhaps, to themselves. They had brain blindness—confirmation bias.

The same might be said of crusading journalists like David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm, a book that seemed to corroborate the beliefs of hundreds of parents of autistic children, and UPI reporters Dan Olmsted and Mark Benjamin (the latter now with Salon).

Systems of belief such as religion and even scientific paradigms can lock their adherents into confirmation biases.

Even? What's the difference?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 1, 2007 6:31 AM

Give me a ******* break. Confirmation bias? Any lawyer who has done personal injury work could tell you all about confirmation bias, not to mention post-settlement miracle cures which would have made Oral Roberts proud.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 1, 2007 8:13 AM

So, that must be why Al gore has been called
the "Prophet."

Posted by: genecis at July 1, 2007 9:45 AM

The difference is that scientific paradigms are regularly disproven, but religions can't be.

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 1, 2007 2:13 PM

The proof of religion is the "lift" it brings societies that adhere to them. (Look what adding two more believing Roman Catholics to the Supreme Court has done.)

Science may have made house work easier, but it hasn't improved marriages.

Posted by: Randall Voth at July 1, 2007 3:41 PM

Vice versa. Scientific paradigms routinely hold for centuries even though they're obvious nonsense while only one religious paradigm is true and has been throughout History: Abrahamism.

Posted by: oj at July 1, 2007 5:27 PM