Misinformation Inoculation

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Once upon a time, America was a scientific nation. We led the world in science education, scientific research, applied scientific discovery, and patents. We were home to 247 Nobel Prize winners (64 in Chemistry, 88 in Physics and 95 in Medicine). We all but completely eradicated polio and small pox. We put computers in most homes, revolutionized the world with the microchip, and made possible a little thing called the Internet. We were instrumental in decoding the human genome. We launched the first communications satellite. We put astronauts on the Moon and took close-up pictures of Mars. We had a reputation. We had scientific street-cred. We led the world in something that truly mattered.

We don’t anymore.

Increasingly, Americans distrust scientists and their findings, largely, in my opinion, due to their massive ignorance of scientific subjects. (The country’s infantile obsession with mythology is also a factor—we’re Number One on the planet for belief in angels—but I don’t have the time or the patience to get into that right now.) There is a level of scientific illiteracy in this country that continues to deepen and amaze. Some reports indicate that the nation ranks 34th in science education, world-wide. This means we lag behind every other economically advanced state, and enjoy the company of countries like Serbia, Uruguay and Tunisia. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those countries, or countries like them, apart—yes—from the fact that their citizens are somewhat more scientifically ignorant than we are.

Perfect case in point: the nonsensical state of affairs surrounding the non-link between childhood vaccinations and autism. A recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling suggested that 21 percent of Americans believe that vaccinations cause autism in children. Because of this uninformed hysteria, up to ten percent of American parents are refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated, according to the Journal of Pediatrics, citing a study published on March 29th, 2013. By not vaccinating their kids, and leaving them vulnerable to, among other life-threatening ailments, rubella, pertussis and measles, these parents are acting irresponsibly to a degree that should be labeled what it is—child abuse.

The nonsense began in 1998 when the medical journal Lancet published a study by Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues at the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine in London. Wakefield, et al, claimed that there was a direct link between vaccines and autism. It should be remarked that their study involved a grand total of 12 children. Even so, it triggered a global freak-out that has continued unabated, especially after noted American scientists Jenny McCarthy and Donald Trump put their storied minds, and ignorant mouths, to work hyping the study to anyone who cared to aim a camera at them. When asked how she came by her special knowledge on the subject, McCarthy famously responded that she had attended the “University of Google.”

Since the Wakefield results were published, numerous scientists (including those famously slapdash nitwits at the Centers for Disease Control) have conducted dozens of studies, as well as detailed reviews of the original Lancet data, and concluded—unanimously—that there is not one iota of evidence linking vaccines to autism. Their findings, or lack thereof, unfortunately did little to debunk the myth, and even though most of Wakefield’s coauthors had their names removed from the paper, and Lancet officially retracted the study, the myth remains, tick-like, firmly the American psyche.

In 2011, the British investigative reporter Brian Deer put what should have been the final ten-penny in the myth’s coffin. Deer went back to square one, interviewing all of the original participants in the Wakefield study, and compared their medical records with those that accompanied the Wakefield data. And what do you know! It seems that Dr. Wakefield not only interpreted some of his data incorrectly, but…wait for it…he invented most of it. In short: he lied. (Follow this link to Deer’s article.) In the aftermath of Deer’s piece, the BMJ (British Medical Journal) had this to say:

Deer unearthed clear evidence of falsification. He found that not one of the 12 cases reported in the 1998 Lancet paper was free of misrepresentation or undisclosed alteration, and that in no single case could the medical records be fully reconciled with the descriptions, diagnoses, or histories published in the journal.

The BMJ concluded by defining Wakefield’s work for what it was. Fraud.

Lamentably, too many parents read Deer’s article, or overviews in other publications, shook their heads, and kept right on thinking junk thought. It comes down to one question. Who are you going to believe, Jenny McCarthy and Donald Trump, or a bunch of “eggheads” who’ve done nothing with their lives but apply their education, intelligence and care to studying the issue? And not to put too fine a point on it, but your answer says a great deal about your level of education, as well as your overall credulity.

The world is dangerous enough without parents intentionally putting their kids in harm’s way. Anecdotes are not facts, no matter what you learned at the U. of Google.


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