How Ought We to Protect Society from Itself? Regarding: The Vaccination Fear (Part 1)
In the last decade, there’s been quite a lot of debate over vaccinations. Often, they regard an alleged causal link between vaccinations and the development of autism. The questions that drive the debate are:
(1) Is it reasonable to conclude that vaccinations are causally connected with the emergence of autism?
(2) If we respond in the negative to the first question, what society ought to do (if anything) in response to the facts about vaccinations?
Often, these two questions aren’t distinguished very carefully from one another, leading to arguments that might easily be avoided were the interlocutors to define more carefully the particular question they’re addressing.
In this first post in a two-part treatment of this issue, I will briefly address the first matter – and somewhat indirectly at that. Then, in a follow-up post, I will more carefully discuss the second. That issue is trickier than the first, as it turns out.
I argue that, while any standard of evidence but the most minimal requires that one commit to an negative response to the first question, this negation alone does not grant a particular conclusion with regard to the second question. I will suggest some potential responses to the second question and weigh a few pros and cons with regard to each of these.
With regard to the first question – Reasoning about evidence…
Rehashing the facts will seem mundane to some readers, but to others, perhaps there is still confusion about the science of vaccines. After all, I think it’s worth addressing a point of view seriously if enough people believe it.
Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus (2011), recently posted a diatribe about the belief that vaccines are dangerous enough to warrant justified avoidance. If you can read past the inflammatory language, the facts are helpful. Here are a few highlights to consider:
- “Hundreds of extensive studies involving millions of children have shown conclusively that there is no link between vaccines and autism”; I tend to trust Mnookin’s claims about his research, as it echoes what we’ve been hearing for a long time and the research has not been discredited (unlike the studies that generated the hysteria about vaccines a decade ago);
- More particularly, and more interesting to me is that some of the folks worried about vaccines point to the supposed presence of a chemical called thimerosal, which contains a kind of mercury. Mnookin points out that thimerosal does not contain the kind of mercury linked to developmental disorders, nor do many of the vaccines folks worry about contain this chemical. This seems to be damning for the position that takes a presence of thimerosal to exist and for certain vaccines to cause developmental disorders in humans (as a product of the presence of this chemical).
- An interesting bit of research to which Mnookin directs us addresses and rejects the alleged link between certain vaccines and autism in particular. He refers us to a meta-analysis done with regard to over 200 scientific studies that support the thesis that there is no causal link between the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine and autism. The report can be found here.
A related item, though not among those that Mnookin mentions specifically, is worth reading about, is a recent (2009) article in the Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing. Here, the researchers conclude that there is no compelling evidence in support of a causal link between autism and vaccinations.
Ad hominem arguments against Jenny McCarthy aside, this blogger does some good work in the way of explaining why vaccinations are not dangerous in the way that vaccination fear-hypothesists claim. The author does not distinguish between the two questions I noted above. However, facts are facts, and considered on their own, they speak well in this post.
Consider also First is a book review from Nature about the book Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. This review regards a book that’s not about the science in particular, but largely about the reasoning in which the public engages when it takes the vaccine-autism hypothesis to be scientifically grounded.
In fact, the evidence piles up here so quickly among respectable scientific sources that it’s hard to decide what else to post in this track, so I’ll refrain from adding to these references. It strikes me that enough experts have done work at this point to gather enough data – if a person could look through even these few items with a reasonable standard of evidence and not be convinced, I’m not sure what can be done to convince that person of the facts.
Lastly, epistemological issues regarding standards of evidence are not my expertise, but a few comments about evidence and belief may be appropriate here.
When it comes to irrational beliefs – cases in which a belief is held in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary conjoined with a general commitment to accept claims that are most likely true – often it seems that the belief-holder does not endorse his or her belief by appeal to facts and to consistent standards of evidence. Rather, this person usually is a walking, talking example of confirmation biases. S/he systematically eliminates evidence that suggests conclusions contrary to that which s/he endorses, and systematically over-values evidence that may suggest conclusions with s/he agrees.
Arguments against the standard evolutionary theses, against the claim that the earth is warming and that carbon emissions are causally related to that warming trend, and 9/11 conspiracy hypotheses seem all to be in the same epistemological ballpark as hypotheses regarding the link between vaccinations and autism. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a favorite fallacy of reasoning that is almost necessitated by commitments to these illogical belief-patterns.
I suspect that many Americans’ distrust of science and anything that smacks of intellectualism is the indirect source of much of the controversy about vaccines.
I’ll open the next post with a few more words about fallacious reasoning, as we’re now getting into the territory of what society ought to do about the conclusion that vaccinations are not causally linked to autism.