On the Lunacy of Science Deniers

Confession: My knickers are in a twist.

The suggestion that there is a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism has my dander up. Still. “Why?” you ask. Last month, the CDC released estimates for measles cases in the United States. As of August 24, 159 cases of measles have been reported for 2013. What’s more, is that 82% of these cases were in individuals who were not vaccinated. Despite measles being declared as eradicated in the US in 2000 (albeit, not outside the US). Yeah, you read that right. A disease that scientists eradicated in this country ON PURPOSE is making a comeback.

This does not get my back up. A projected 230-240 cases in a country of 300 million+? Statistically, it’s very small potatoes. What annoys me is that there is STILL discussion about the link between autism the MMR vaccine. Newsflash: in the scientific community, this debate ended when the Lancet retracted the study that suggested the link (authored by Andrew Wakefield and 11 others), Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine in the UK, and other, larger, more rigorous studies could not replicate the original study results. “Alternative” media outlets such as the Whiteout Press have been running headlines like “Courts Quietly Confirm MMR Vaccine Causes Autism.” Which courts? you, the savvy reader of research ask. A local Italian court, citing the long debunked, fraudulent, and retracted study acknowledged the link while reviewing the case of a child who was vaccinated and who was later diagnosed with autism. Seriously. The same legal system that gave us the prolonged drama of 3 different trials for Amanda Knox (the American university student accused of killing her roommate), convictions for manslaughter of 6 scientists for not predicting the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake? Of course, my personal favorite is the Supreme Court of Rome’s reversal of a rape conviction on the grounds that women wearing jeans could not be raped because it was impossible to remove jeans of victim without her consent. Please tell me more about how courts should be used to establish causal relationships, they are soooo good at it.


Disregarding the fact that courts are not supposed to be in the business of establishing “scientific truth”, this whole things makes me twitch. People who choose to forego vaccination against deadly disease risk jeopardizing the health of everyone else. Vaccines work by preventing viruses from doing their virus thing (replicating and evolving) in those who have been vaccinated. Problems arise when they are allowed to replicate and evolve in large segments of a population, the virus interacting with the infinitely detailed and immense genetic information that each individual contains. In this scenario, unvaccinated individuals provide the bio-physiological environment perfect for mutations.

Equally important to understand, is that vaccine deniers aren’t really making a choice. Using 2013 measles reports, if one were to estimate the crude risk that an unvaccinated person will acquire measles this year, they would get 0.00000050129 (of course, I am sure there is a more elegant adjusted rate somewhere, but it’s not the point). Parents that choose not to vaccinate their kids aren’t making a true Sophie’s choice, between two horrible choices with equally high probability. They are choosing between one horrible, but unlikely choice (their kid getting measles) and a less horrible, greater likelihood event (their child being diagnosed with autism). Let me be clear: this “choice” is only possible because so many other people are vaccinating their children.

fear and loathing

What really grinds my gears is the default position in our society that treats all “facts” not only as valid, but equally important (I say “facts” because this default position does not usually include a rigorous consideration of the source of said facts). Allow me to repeat: our socio-cultural context simultaneously makes no comment on the validity of information presented for public consumption while allowing uninformed individuals to not only comment on topics of serious public discussion, but influence that discussion. This is indeed madness.

The continued existence of the anti-vaccine movement specifically, and the influence of science deniers more broadly, is really just a canary in the coal mine for intellectualism in the United States (click if you are unfamiliar with the phrase). Recent research on individuals who are most likely to make up “facts” to support their ideology as well as the latest results from international educational rankings seem to illustrate a socio-cultural context in the United States that does not favor science, research, and the intellectual endeavors of curious and independent thinkers, (and which has always been the bedrock of American exceptionalism). In the US, anti-intellectualism and science denying have merged with populism to produce a context where good science is indistinguishable from bad, where we have no idea what validity means, and specialized training in a discipline is unnecessary because a friend of a friend of a friend experienced X, so it must be true.


Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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