Saturday, February 13, 2010

A bridge too far

This is a, somewhat belated, reaction to Chris Mooney's article in science progress Will the Vaccine-Autism Saga Finally End? in which Mooney writes about the latest developments regarding Wakefield and his infamous study on the possibility of a MMR-autism link (a study which was retracted by The Lancet recently).

Most of the article is quite fine, but at the end, Mooney writes the following:

Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything. We need to encourage moderation, and break down a polarized situation in which the anti-vaccine crowd essentially rejects modern medical research based on the equivalent of conspiracy theory thinking, even as mainstream doctors just shake their heads at these advocates’ scientific cluelessness. Vaccine skepticism is turning into one of the largest and most threatening anti-science movements of modern times. Watching it grow, we should be very, very worried—and should not assume for a moment that the voice of scientific reason, in the form of new studies or the debunking of old, misleading ones, will make it go away.

This paragraph is problematic for several reasons. First of all, as Orac reports, this has been attempted before, without success. Not because of lack of trying from the scientists, but because of the behavior by the anti-vaccination crowd.

Second of all, it's problematic because it lends credibility to the anti-vaccination crowd. If the scientists are willing to debate them, then there must be something to it, or so it would seem to many.

Let me go into this a little deeper. When I talked to a friend about this yesterday, he said something which actually sums up the problem really well, while staying in the bridge building metaphor: "One cannot build bridges to alternative universes".

When we are dealing with the anti-vaccination crowd, we are dealing with a crowd that believe that there is a world-wide conspiracy among Governments, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, nurses, scientists, and many other, to suppress knowledge about behavior which is harmful to children.

This might not be what they say, but it's the consequences of their claims.

Think about it for a moment.

Childhood vaccinations are given all over the world, from Communist China, over theocratic Iran and feudal Saudi-Arabia to capitalist USA, yet the anti-vaccinationists want us to believe that all these governments willfully ignore data that shows that these vaccinations cause autism?

Big Pharma, as medical companies are often called, is a billion dollar industry, with heavy lobbying in the US, yet in countries like Denmark, vaccinations are made by state-run institutions (in Denmark, Statens Serum Institut).
Somehow, the anti-vaccination crowd wants us to believe that the Danish state continues to give childhood vaccinations, causing autism, even when the same state is the one who has to cover the cost of the special needs of the autistic children, due to the Danish welfare state?

Doctors and nurses all over the world are involved in giving out the vaccinations. They would also need to be part of the conspiracy.

Scientists all over the world do studies into the side effects of vaccinations, into the root causes of autism, and many other related subjects which would uncover a vaccination-autism link, yet only discredited people like Andrew Wakefield makes claims about such a link.

That is one big conspiracy theory.

Yet, Mooney wants us to build bridges to this crowd. Agreeing on something, anything, in order to... what exactly? How does one convince someone who not only believes in such a conspiracy, but actively promotes the conspiracy theory, that it doesn't exist?

And then there is the problem of giving credibility to the anti-vaccination crowd.

When one builds a bridge, the idea is to cross from one side to the other, not to meet halfway. There is the continent of reality, and then there is the islands of anti-science - meeting somewhere between, will move you from reality towards anti-science. Even more so, when you move towards the anti-science crowd, yet the anti-science crowd stands firm - you won't reach each other, but it will move the halfway point closer to their position. A sort of negative Overton Window, if you want.

No, the scientific community should most certainly not try to build a bridge to the anti-vaccination leadership. Instead, the scientific community should try to inform the public, especially journalists, about what the science says, given them the information needed to form informed opinions, when studying the subject.

People like Paul Offit is doing yeoman's work in this regard, with books like Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, yet we could use many more.

So, if one wants to build bridges, one should build bridges to the general public, probably through journalists, and ignore the lunatic fridge like Jenny McCarthy.

A side note: Chris Mooney is interviewing Paul Offit in Point Of Inquiry - I haven't heard the episode yet, so I can't comment on it.

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Blogger Gadfly said...

Kris, this isn't the first time in the last year or so Mooney has written something a bit... iffy.

February 13, 2010 10:35 AM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

I have tried to stay out of that whole fight, as it to me is more about priorities than anything else. Still, if one look at my comments on other blogs, it's no secret which camp I belong to.

In this case, Mooney is just plain wrong, even if one where to agree with his ideas of reaching for the moderate religious.

The equivalent in the science/religion debate would be for scientists to try to build bridges to hardcore fundamentalist religious people. Not going to happen.

February 13, 2010 11:54 AM  

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