Well Being

Politicking, Pandering, and Paranoia

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Considering how many pressing issues there are to talk regarding children and adults—education, employment, housing, to name a very few—-why do we keep getting stuck talking about the hypothetical claim of a link between vaccines and autism?

Here's some thoughts towards why the whole issue seems to have devolved into something approaching paranoia, not to mention pander for politicians (and all the more after what two of the presidential candidates have said about autism, vaccines, and the “autism epidemic”).

In a recent essay entitled The Paranoid Style in American Science, Daniel Engbar, associate editor at Slate, writes about critics of mainstream science “whose skepticism has taken on the trappings of conspiracy theory.” Engbar is specifically writing in reference to the just-released Ben Stein documentary entitled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed which claims that American educators and scientists who believe that there is evidence of intelligent design in nature are being persecuted for their beliefs. (The National Center for Science Education has created Expelled Exposed, which explains why the movie is “not a documentary at all, but anti-science propaganda aimed at creating the appearance of controversy where there is none.”)

Other examples of the “rise in conspirational thinking in science” include a controversy overly familiar in discussions about autism, the alleged link between vaccines and autism. Writes Engbar:

The proponents of intelligent design are far from the only critics of mainstream science whose skepticism has taken on the trappings of conspiracy theory. In a 2005 article for Salon and Rolling Stone, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reported on a top-secret meeting in rural Georgia where high-level government officials and pharmaceutical executives worked to cover up the link between children's vaccines and autism. (No such link has been found.) The public utilities are still accused, as they have been for more than 50 years, of conspiring against America's youth by fluoridating the water supply. And skeptics of the obesity epidemic point out that the media collude with pharmaceutical companies to feed a booming weight-loss industry. Paranoid science reveals nonmedical conspiracies, too—impenetrable ballistics data form the basis for a theory of the assassination of JFK, and the calculations of structural engineering cast doubt on the official story of 9/11.

Healthy skepticism and thoughtful critique of science have turned into paranoia and an adherence to pseudoscience which looks like science, sounds authoritative, and tends to quack (as in quackery). In the meantime, the hypothesis that vaccines (like the MMR) or something in vaccines (such as mercury) are a causative factor autism has lodged itself deeply in the public's consciousness, and the carefully reasoned protests of scientists about vaccines saving lives and the threats to herd immunity have so far fallen on some very deaf ears.

To explain this turn to paranoia and unreasonable, accusatory suspicion, Engbar quotes historian Richard Hofstadter‘s 1964 essay on the “paranoid style in American politics”:

The paranoid style, Hofstadter wrote, “is nothing if not scholarly in its technique.” In his mainstream enemies, the conspiratorial thinker sees “a projection of the self”—he's just like them but more discerning and more rational. Indeed, for the paranoid skeptics, it's not that science is wrong but that the scientists aren't scientific enough……..

Proponents of a hypothetical vaccine-autism link are indeed “nothing if not scholarly” in their technique. From the 2001 article Autism: a novel form of mercury poisoning to the writings of David Kirby, to the “Lupron protocol” of Mark Geier and David Geier, those who believe that vaccines directly contribute to autism make constant reference to “science” and “research” and “studies.” Proponents of a vaccine-autism link offer themselves as maverick citizen-scientists who, uninfluenced by Big Pharma and driven by a parents' need to know “what happened to my child,” are not afraid to stand up to the CDC, government science agencies, and research scientists. They are what Hofstadter terms a “scholarly paranoid.” And, as Engbar notes:

The scholarly paranoid, says Hofstadter, is also an apocalyptic thinker, “always manning the barricades of civilization.” At least one-third of Expelled is given over to the idea that evolutionary theory caused the Holocaust, via government-sponsored social Darwinism. (In pondering this terrible legacy, Ben Stein weeps at Dachau.) If the paranoid style in politics worried over the end of democracy, the paranoid style in science sees evolution as the end of values, antidepressants as the end of emotion, and genetically modified crops as the end of biodiversity.

These catastrophic fantasies may be an inevitable result of skepticism run amok.

Indeed. Proponents of a vaccine-autism speak frequently of autism in apocalyptic language that suggests there's a lot of catastrophic thinking going on. The language of disaster is often referred to: Autism is a “tsunami“; autism is an “epidemic”; autism is a “national health emergency.” The very advances of modern science have, some proponents of a vaccine-autism link contend, created some new and awful scourge that threatens our children.

In an earlier post, Elementary, My Dear Mr. Handley—-Mr. Handley being J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, which alleges that autism and other neurological disorders are caused by an “overload of heavy metals, live viruses, and bacteria”—-I wrote:

…..maybe when you spend so much time thinking about mercury instead of dealing with actual autistic persons in the here and now, you start to see things—you start to imagine conspiracies—-as you cobble together a plot for the Great Autism Whodunnit. This makes for (semi-) amusing reading, but I’m afraid it does not really help too much in addressing the really pressing problems that many of us face in getting the school placements our kids need to thrive in, in finding a babysitter so we can attend a school meeting about transitions, in teaching my son Charlie to write “s” so he can write his last name, Fisher. These are topics that I find need to be addressed in this “age of autism.”

What's the purpose ultimately of tracking down a conspiracy about autism and vaccines? The more reports of “evidence” “confirming” the autism-vaccine hypothesis that I read, the less these seem to be about autism. Tracking down the truth about an alleged conspiracy involving the government, vaccines and autism has become an end itself and somehow I don't think this is in the best interest of preparing education, supports, and services for autistic children growing up to be autistic adults. The recent subpoenas of blogger Kathleen Seidel, who has carefully documented vaccine injury litagation, and Dr. Maria McCormick, who has spoken publicly and straightforwardly about there being no link between vaccines and autism, are examples of this (potentially fruitless) tendency towards conspirational thinking in proponents of a vaccine-autism link. (The subpoena against Seidel was recently quashed; a concise analysis is offered by Ars Technica.)

Conspiracy theories and controversy—especially a medical controversy involving children— attract attention, and all the more when wrapped in scholarly references and scientific-looking theories. Who doesn't want to be proven smarter than the scientists, especially those who work for the government?

Rather than pander to the theory- and the conspiracy-mongers, I'm keeping my thoughts on those pressing issues of education, employment, housing, training and support for staff and emergency personnel and medical professionals and I don't know who else. As of his annual check-up last Monday, my not-yet-11-year-old son if 7/8 inch taller than me. He's muscular and shocked another boy at the pool by how fast he can swim: If things were different, I wager that Charlie would have been recruited to play defense on the high school football team. Things being as they are, he is not (okay by me). Things being as they are, pandering and paranoia aren't going to get me too far in helping him. But being practical, pragmatic, and political-minded: These are a necessary style of thinking to foster the kinds of changes in our society that will most help  Charlie and many autistic children and adult; that will make a real difference in their and our lives.